Queens-based writer Catherine Kapphahn's memoir, Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me won The Center For Fiction's Christopher Doheny Award and is currently available for purchase on Amazon and IndieBound. Here, Catherine speaks with us about the stories of first- and second-generation immigrants, how Queens opened her eyes to the realities of working artists, and how writing helped her fill in the details of her mother's past. For more information, check out her website and follow her on Facebook.
When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?
In our corner of Astoria, with its small, two and three-family houses and little gardens with their carefully tended roses and lilacs, it often feels like a village. When I would sit at New York City Bagels and Coffee House, doing my final revisions, people would stop and chat. I might be between someone working on his memoir, and someone working on her stand-up comedy. On my way home, I would see a friend working in her urban farm. When I stopped at the corner store, I would chat with the Tibetan owners about their children and how school was going. This is what I love about Astoria.
How does Queens influence your writing?
When I was growing up, I didn’t really know any working artists. Here, dancers, musicians, actors, visual artists, writers, people who bring the arts to children and teens, are all around me. Artists are constantly cobbling together lives that search for meaning. My son was recently on a playdate with a friend, and I visited their apartment, also an art studio. I discovered that both parents were incredible visual artists. The mother exhibits her installation art all over the world. I felt grateful to hear about their journey and inspired by their work.
What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?
I just finished listening to the audio version of I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez. Ms. Sánchez captures these intimate moments of young adult children of immigrants that reminded me of my own college freshman students. Julia, the main character, feels the intense pressure to make something of herself as she begins to grasp the full extent of the sacrifices her family made to bring her to Chicago. Most of my students are immigrants or the children of immigrants; Dreamers; documented and undocumented; they have traveled from Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, Ireland, Albania, Montenegro, The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Philippines, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal, and all over the world to come here. They have wrestled with the idea of “the American Dream” and many of the harsh realities that they have faced in their everyday lives in order to learn the language, get an education, and make a life for themselves.
As I finished listening to the book, my students’ stories echoed through me: being carried as a baby across the border, fending for yourself and your sister after watching your father get arrested by ICE, leaving behind a beloved mother in your home country to attend school here and live in a crowded apartment full of strangers, encountering your first comments about your skin, your hair, your country, and your accent, and the deep pain of what it feels like to have your family fragmented in different countries. I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter unravels many of these themes with the rawness and grace of the teenage voice.
What inspires you?
Definitely my students’ writing! At Lehman College in the Bronx, I created “Writing the Mind and Body: Translating the Physical Experience.” In this dynamic writing workshop, we explore the language of movement and stillness, pain and healing, curiosity and resilience. I hold the space for my freshman students to write personally driven essays. Over the last 16 years it’s been my honor to be editor, reader, and witness to their stories. I’ve learned what it means to have your father incarcerated, what it means to have a Christian name in a Muslim village when you have a Muslim mom; what it means to be the first child of a child bride, or to be a child bride and escape. I’ve learned what it’s like to be inside a hut where female genital mutilation is happening, only to be pulled away by a neighbor just in time. I’ve learned what it’s like to leave your home in Haiti to treat your brain tumor in New York; what it’s like to watch your brother spiral into addiction and depression when he comes back from war. I’ve learned so much about the politics of hair. I’ve learned how running, swimming, skateboarding, dancing, and music can save you. My students have taught me how to find courage even when everything is going against you; together we’ve learned how storytelling can lead to resilience.
How did you come to write this memoir?
During my second attempt at college, I signed up for my very first writing class. A fierce and generous Italian-American professor by the name of Louise DeSalvo taught my memoir writing class at Hunter College in New York City. We sat in a circle at our desks in awe of Louise, who made every single one of us in that room feel as if we deserved to write. She treated us like we were already writers, each with an important story to share. I had never considered writing before I took that class. In fact, writing had always been extremely difficult for me and I was terrified to even attempt it. Yet in that class, I wrote the first draft of a chapter called “Sundays,” which is in the book. And Louise wrote about me; I appeared in her book Writing as a Way of Healing. I took several more classes with Louise and she changed the course of my life. Without realizing it, I began working on this book. At first, I believed that I would write about the loss of my mom, instead her story sent me on a journey that lasted over twenty years, a search for an elusive cultural identity, resurrecting the family that I never knew, a love-adventure story about a family of three, and somehow, I was able to find the words, for myself and my mom.
How did you decide to write this story as a memoir vs. a novel? Was it something you struggled with at all?
I started off writing memoir, and I feel at home writing memoir. However, in graduate school, I struggled with trying so hard to be inside my mom’s experience and not quite reaching it. I didn’t fit into the journalistic non-fiction that was encouraged at the time. Throughout the process of writing this book, I discovered I was dyslexic and in more recent years, I learned a lot about dyslexia. For example, we can be good at taking things that are far apart and connecting them. When I recognized that the emotional landscape propels my stories forward, that I like to plant seeds that will really bloom for the reader, that I like to move freely through time, things got easier for me. When it became clear to me that I could not reach my mom’s history, I finally found the courage to write her story from her perspective and the people in her family. I had to push beyond the boundaries of traditional memoir in order to create my history.
Was there any particular music or specific songs you found yourself returning to while writing your book?
The songs that appear in Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me reflect my mom’s multicultural identity. They capture her longings and nostalgia. They reveal things about her. A couple of Dalmatian folk songs play a huge part in the narrative, and as a writer they allowed me to understand her more deeply. Also, I remember in the final months of making revisions, I was talking to a friend from Chile, and she was telling me about her birthday, how her husband put on the Mexican song “Las Mañanitas” and walked into the room, playing the guitar, singing to her. And while she was singing it hit me—I remembered my mom loved that song! My friend and I laughed that we shared a common memory. That day, I just kept playing that song over and over, I played it for my kids, and then I ended up adding it to the book.
What does your writing process/routine look like?
I’m really visual, so I often make lists of images, sensations, sounds, memories, and eventually stories spiral out from those details. Sometimes I see the beginning and endings long before I see anything else. Sometimes I write blind, and don’t really know where I’m going, but allow my instinct to guide me. Oftentimes, I write early in the morning while the kids are still sleeping.
What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
While I was working on Immigrant Daughter: Stories You Never Told Me, I began another project, thanks to Queens Council on the Arts. It will be a memoir or a young adult novel... I’m still deciding. It’s about the misadventures of a dyslexic girl making her way through a dozen schools. Unaware and undiagnosed, she wanders through the enchantment of childhood and the trauma of learning differently until she grows up and discovers what it means to write a story of her own.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
I love traveling with my boys even if it’s just exploring a new place in the city. On our last adventure, we went hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington State, and even visited the fire lookout where my dad worked as a park ranger in 1948.
In Queens, I often meet my friends and take dance classes (I grew up dancing!).
And, as my friends will tell you, I’m a huge podcast lover!