Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Visiting with Daisy Hernandez

by Jodi Paloni

What inspired your essay “Blackout” ?

Well, the essay is ostensibly about the year I had a reporting internship at The New York Times. I was there in 2003 when the Times was rocked by a plagiarism scandal leading to the two top editors being fired. The plagiarist was a black man and the Times was a PWI (predominantly white institution) so race became a focal point in the controversy (to say the least)—and I guess that’s enough to inspire anyone to write an essay! But actually I think the real inspiration came from the confusion I felt when I looked back at that time in my life. I had grown up in an immigrant family and small town America, both of which told me to reach for the American Dream. Naively, I had expected to reach a place like the Times and step into a movie titled Happiness Forever. Instead, people there were, well, just people. They were as mired in the race question as anyone and I wanted to explore what my time there had meant for me as a young woman of color.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this piece.

I actually started this essay by writing about Jayson Blair whose plagiarism ignited the scandal. I thought of him as some kind of symbol about what can happen for young people of color at predominantly white institutions. But the more I wrote, the more my curiosity grew. I found myself remembering certain moments and changing my perspective about other moments. I cannot stress enough how many drafts there were of this essay! All writing is ultimately revising but with this essay I went through many more drafts than usual, I think. This is probably where I should say that I wrote this essay over the course of many years. I had a draft, put it away, edited a magazine, wrote other pieces, came back to the essay, and started over. That actually seems to be my process in general with memoir essays. I find that as I write I learn more about the experience and about myself and that takes time.

For this essay, my writing group luckily consisted of journalists who were also creative writers and so thanks to them—Sandip Roy, Minal Hajratwala and Pueng Vong—I had folks who prodded me on with questions and feedback. I remember at one point Sandip telling me that I needed the beginning portion of the story… you know, when I was all wide-eyed and dazzled by The New York Times. It was the kind of obvious thing you can’t see when you’re in the thick of so many drafts.

I can’t stress enough the role of friends in my writing process. Toward the end of revising, when I was stuck with the essay, a fellow writer and friend, Linda Gonzalez, heard me out and said she wanted to read this essay. I had a reader! That helped to keep me going through another round of revisions.

The only thing second to friends are long walks in the woods. I was fortunate enough to work on this essay over a number of years when I lived near the Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, California. I went for many a long walk there and I can’t help but think that walking in silence helped me think through the experience and the essay.

Finally, of course, I kept a personal journal when I was at the Times and I dug that up. It didn’t have as much information as I had hoped but it definitely helped to remember how I had felt at the time and it had at least one line that I was able to incorporate into the essay.  

Name your favorite living writer and tell us why.

Luis Alberto Urrea. His memoir-in-essays, Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life, is absolutely stunning. His prose is poetry, his jokes about race crack me up, and he has an amazing skill in rendering people so that you fall in love with them even as you’re sighing over the many ways they are going to disappoint you. At one point, I was reading the book in a café and had to put it down because I was crying! A character had died and I felt like I had lost someone I loved. I recently saw him perform a scene from his new novel, Queen of America, at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference—that’s right, perform. He memorized a whole passage and did some old-fashion story telling (imaginary lasso and all!). That takes some guts.

What’s the hardest thing to get right in an essay?

The truth. Not the “logistical” truth. You can obviously research and fact-check when something happened, and so on. I’m talking about the emotional truth. At the end of the day, the essay carries your perceptions of what happened and so much rests on how honest you can be with yourself and others about what you saw and what you thought it meant and what you think now. It kind of kills me that I will surely read this essay ten years from now and think something totally different—but then that will make for its own essay.

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