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2019 Brennan Prize Winning Essay
The Power of the Memoir
Daisy Hernandez's memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed unveils the detrimental effects of oppressive structures and prejudices on herself and others. Hernandez faces a series of external and internal conflicts because of her identity. As a bisexual Cuban-Colombian woman living in the United states, Hernandez is disadvantaged. She faces discrimination which alters the way she perceives herself. She is constantly pondering what she must do in order to please her family, her community, and most importantly, herself. She presents these feelings through a first person narration, granting the reader a perspective directly into how she views injustice in the world. Some may argue that memoirs proclaim falsehoods, for memories are oftentimes reconstructed upon recollection. For example, dialogues from one's childhood, which are unlikely to be remembered verbatim, are presented as fact in a memoir. Furthermore, in writing about oneself, one cannot escape from writing about and assuming the impact of experiences on others. Nonetheless, Hernandez explicitly and humbly states that she recognizes the limits that come with writing a memoir, and admits that she oftentimes misremembers places and situations.
Truth lies beneath the surface, and the reader must consider the broader significance of each story within the memoir. In A Cup of Water Under My Bed, rhetorical devices such as simile, repetition, symbolism, and allusion denounce oppressive structures by evoking pathos,
emphasizing the impact of repressive systems on the individual, families, and entire communities, and pointing-out hypocrisy.
Through the use of simile, Hernandez makes the experience of feeling othered accessible, all while critiquing the systems which support condemning individuals and consequently force them to question their human value. The scene in which Hernandez informs her mother that she is dating women highlights the impact of prejudices, stressing their contribution to her feelings of ostracization: "I've never heard of this. This doesn't happen in Columbia" (Hernandez 84).
The generational gap between Hernandez and her mother is apparent, and suggests that stereotypes transcend across time and boundaries. Lesbianness is foreign to Hernandez's mother, who indirectly implies that her daughter is an abnormal Columbian. In a study about mental cognitions, author John Baldwin claims, "internal cognitions manifest in symbol usage and social and organizational practice" (1). The latter can be seen manifested in this particular context; Hernandez's mother places her daughter in the outgroup since lesbians are not represented in her current community. Her response indirectly denouncing her daughter can be seen as a verbal manifestation of fear which then harms Hernandez, forcing her to rethink her Columbian identity as well as her sexual identity. Misconceptions cause discomfort in both the mother and the daughter and strain their relationship: "My mother develops a minor depression and a vague but persistent headache. She is not well, the tias snap at me" (Hernandez 85). Eventually, Hernandez's whole family is made aware of her sexuality, and their inability to see eye-to-eye leads to familial disconnect: "And it is hard, I imagine, for people who have not experienced this to understand the weight of that silence and how the absence of language can feel like death" (86). Through this simile comparing silence to death, Hernandez evokes pathos, insisting that longstanding misconceptions can harm even the most intimate relationships. Although connected by blood, Hernandez could not feel more estranged. The silences remind her that negative misconceptions are powerful, destructive, and seemingly unbreakable and established.
Hernandez goes beyond sharing personal experience and tells the story of Gwen in order to underline the lack of representation for minority groups and to emphasize the universal struggle for acceptance. Gwen, a transgender woman, is the victim of an intolerant society which isolates those who identify outside the norm. She faces violence, and eventually death, as a result of a hate crime. Her community neither understands nor accepts her, even though she insists she is just like them: "Gwen's words: No, please don't, I have a family" (102). Hernandez imagines Gwen's attempt to relate to her oppressor's humanity. Hernandez then inserts her own narrative voice and asks the reader to feel empathy for Gwen by expanding upon Gwen's pleas: "I have a family, I have a tribe, I belong" (102). The tricolon of "I" and the repetition of "family" makes Gwen's struggle to feel accepted apparent. In order to immerse the reader into the world of suffering in which Gwen finds herself in, Hernandez uses repetition to affirm the universal desire to be accepted. She repeats the words "I" and "family" to point out the inherently relational nature of all people, implying that no one should be excluded from the human experience. She then connects Gwen's experience with the experience of other minority groups, suggesting that the struggle to feel as though one belongs is historically recurring: "In the most terrifying of
moments, she reached for that epic placed in the hands of so many Chicanas and Colombianas and Dominicanas, and Greeks and Romans and Africans" (102). The polysyndeton accelerates the pace of the narrative and creates a sense of communal struggle. However, unlike the narratives of previously oppressed peoples, Gwen does not have a story to guide her out of suffering. Hernandez's memoir aims to create a story of representation.
Hernandez also inexplicitly critiques that which has ultimately led to Gwen's demise: toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity harms a man's sense of self and oftentimes results in aggression against those who challenge society's binaries. Throughout the memoir, masculinity is presented as a symbol for normalcy- those who do not meet its standards are subject to being viewed and treated as outcasts. In Gwen's story, males attack her in attempt to make themselves feel better about their masculinity. Her murder is therefore deemed understandable: "The abogados insisted that it was, if not justifiable, at least understandable that a group of young hetero men would murder when they discovered themselves with a fractured narrative...any reasonable person would have killed the girl." (103). The tone shifts from serious to sarcastic and critical. It is evident that feeling emasculated should not be sufficient grounds for killing another human. Nonetheless, Hernandez appears unsurprised that there is a lack of empathy for an impoverished female of color, and the audience left asking why hate crimes resulting in death persist today.
Hernandez's explicit understanding of the inner workings of power structures adds a layer of depth to her reimagining of Gwen's experience. In an interview with Karla Mantilla, Hernandez explains how she tackles writing about both feminist and racial justice: "I have also been thinking about the whole 'gender versus race' matter. It's such a false duality, but one that captivates people. Why? We all know at some level there is no polarization, that I can't divide my gender from my race" (326). Hernandez is arguing for support of the "intersectionality theory" which claims that people are disadvantaged by various sources of oppression (Patil 850). Her support for the intersectionality theory serves as one explanation for why she incorporates Gwen's story into her own memoir. She points to Gwen's entire struggle, calling awareness to those who are oppressed as a result of their overlapping identities. She tackles discrimination wholistically, and this can be seen in her retelling of Gwen's story. For example, Hernandez characterizes Gwen through the use of asyndeton, which linguistically conveys a sense of intersectional disadvantagement: "the girl, the brown girl, the poor girl" (Hernandez 103). By omitting extraneous linking words and visually merging the phrases together, every part of Gwen's identity seems to connect: her gender, socioeconomic class, and race. All aspects of Gwen's identity marginalize her. In other words, Gwen's experience as a transgender woman cannot be separated from her experience as a person of color or lower-class citizen. All these aspects interlap and discriminate her. Her story is added not only to stress what can happen when groups lack agency and representation, or to insist the dangers of toxic masculinity, but to further argue that prejudice is complex and powerful groups often go to extremes to prevent weaker groups from participating in society.
Hernandez also uses repetition to stress the damaging effects of marginalization on the individual. Tia Dora others Hernandez after she is made aware of her bisexuality: 'Don't talk to me' or 'Don't call me again' or 'Don't call here again.' It was not the words I remember but the high notes, the sense of being shoved out of the room, as well
as the distant feeling that was wrong that I had fallen in love with a femmy butch, but that I had said it. I had spoken. I was worse than una india. (110)
Although Hernandez cannot reproduce the exact dialogue, she vividly remembers Tia Dora's imperative tone. The tricolon of "don't" creates a sense of indefinite certainty. Tia Dora appears unwilling to change her perspective. The anaphora of "I" in addition to the short choppy sentences helps to convey Hernandez's consequential feelings of guilt and aloneness. Both silence and isolation are presented as traumatizing. Literary critic Anna Rose Silverstein interprets silence as a key motif within the memoir, for the goal of the memoir itself is to write on past experiences and analyze the significance of events: "Hernandez seeks to find reconciliation and meaning for herself and for her family through language and storytelling" (188). On one hand, Hernandez is writing a memoir to make sense of her hardships and reflect on her family life. She does not fully blame her family for their views, but is highly critical of the oppressive systems which serve as the basis for her family's misconceptions. On the other hand, Hernandez may be expressing the effects of silence on those who are othered to show the larger implications of repressive structures; marginalization expels Hernandez from participation in familial life and harms her sense of belonging. She incorporates this story in which she is at her most vulnerable to emphasize the stress of coming-out in a family which seems to internalize negative preconceptions about those who are not heteronormative.
Hernandez also uses symbols to point-out how marginalized people can contribute to cycles of oppression. She points to hypocrisies that are most apparent to her, even if that means revealing the wrongdoings of those within her own family. For example, Tia Dora, although she herself feels misplaced, racializes other immigrants: Tia Dora saw these immigrants at the bus stop, at first mostly just men, and announced, 'The indios are everywhere'- not because they had misbehaved like me but because they were short, had thick black hair and brown faces, and wore cheap jeans. For Tia, their physical signs indicated illiteracy, poverty, and the lack of culture" (111). Hernandez then personifies racism, saying it is "always moving" (111). "Una india" is a symbol of otherness, and the phrase has actively crossed the border of Columbia with Tia into America; Tia explicitly others a group of immigrants by stereotyping, compartmentalizing them into a single group: "indios." She does not recognize the broader implications of othering another group of immigrants, and fails to see that her own insecurities are strengthening the system of racism which chains entire groups to the bottom of society. She puts down the other group of people due to fear of becoming like them- she fears seeing herself in them, and therefore mentally distances herself from them. Hernandez does not exempt her aunt from othering weaker groups, and incorporates this story into her memoir to explain how systems of racism physically separate communities.
Repetition and allusion further evoke pathos and encourage the audience to contemplate the psyche of those in power and the sources from which suffering and racism originate.
Hernandez presents those working amongst her at the New York Times as guilty of quantifying suffering: "There is a hierarchy of pain... Pain in and of itself is not enough. It matters how many are dead, how many wounded, over what period of time, how much public outrage there is in the West" (154). Hernandez is mocking the ways in which racism is produced by introducing the "hierarchy of pain" which seems to be determined by white people in the West. The repetition of "pain" is biting, and the tone is ironic. She is critiquing the way those who have not experienced marginalization make assumptions about the experiences of others and patronizingly assess plights based on facts and publicity. These people add to the suffering by deeming other groups unworthy of resources and attention. Furthermore, she alludes to racism supported by science, pondering what it would be like to be one who perpetuates structural forms of oppression: "like I have entered the collective mind of white people with political power everywhere and managed to see one of the strange rituals by which they reproduce. This I can only imagine, is how Darwin must have felt" (154). She metaphorically places Darwin's tools in her hand, wondering what it must have been like to use nature to justify racism. She seems to suggest that the audience should also evaluate the past and current mentality of oppressors and draw attention to their hypocritical tendencies, so as to prevent them from fortifying structures which persecute ethnic groups.
Hernandez vividly describes her own intimate experiences as an ostracized person in order to evoke empathy. Through the use of rhetorical devices, she makes the experience of being othered available to the reader. There are consequences to repressive structures and deeply ingrained racism and sexism which is apparent, and she herself struggles to create an identity as a result. Furthermore, misconceptions about sexuality can harm the family. The memoir also includes the stories of others, such as Gwen and Tia Dora. Whereas Gwen's story shows the interconnectedness of oppression, Tia Dora's explicit judgements help Hernandez understand and explain how prejudices come to be deeply ingrained within society. She also alludes to the antiquated structures of racism that guide the thoughts of her colleagues, suggesting that many oftentimes subconsciously perpetuate systems of oppression. She urges the reader to ask why systems of oppression persist, and how to eradicate them so that the individual, the family, and the community can coexist peacefully.
Silverstein, Anna Rose. "Afro-Hispanic Review." Afro-Hispanic Review, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, pp. 186-189. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24585234. Accessed December 8, 2018.
Baldwin, John. "Culture, Prejudice, Racism, and Discrimination." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication, 2017, p.l. Oxford Encyclopedias,
http://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acr efore-9780190228613-e-164?print=pdf. Accessed December 10, 2018.
Patil, Vrushali. "From Patriarchy to Intersectionality: A Transnational Feminist Assessment of How Far We've Really Come." Signs, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 847-867. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669560. Accessed December 8, 2018.
Mantilla, Karla, and Daisy Hernandez. "News and Views [Interview with Daisy Hernandez, Editor of ColorLines]." Feminist Studies, vol. 34, no. 1/2, 2008, pp. 323-328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20459203. Accessed December 8, 2018.
Hernandez, Daisy. A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.