Interview by Kathryn Lackey
Ella deCastro Baron is a memoirist, poet, and fiction writer. Her first book, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment, is written as an ironic Curriculum Vitae where life and work experiences one wouldn’t want a potential employer to know are highlighted using vulnerability, wit, observation, and candor. A first generation Filipina American, Ella was born in Oakland and raised in Vallejo, California. With a BA in English Literature from UC Berkeley, Ella moved to San Diego to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. She is a full-time wife and mother of three little ones, a part-time English and Creative Writing instructor at San Diego City College and Brandman University, and an ‘other’-times published writer in publications such as Fiction International, Sunshine Noir, Lavanderia, Mamas and Papas, CityWorks Literary Journal and coeditor of the anthology, Hunger and Thirst. She hopes to continue being a witness to her ethnic upbringing, her faith, her interracial family, and how it may or may not fit together. Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment was a finalist for the San Diego Book Awards.
From painful depictions of raw itchy skin to the raw emotions ignited by discrimination, injury, and perceived failures, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment is full of your truths. You include a quote from your best friend Fred in which he says, “The truths…always grow into more questions.” Did you find this in your writing process? Was your writing process self-revelatory or healing in any way?
This book helped me to celebrate the acorns of truths in my life (so far) and as they have grown into more questions (even as seemingly impervious as oak trees) going back to my stories and those of others reminds me the acorns are always nearby. For example, I spoke pretty plainly about my mom and her affair—the symbol of our family’s dissolution—and as soon as I began processing and cultivating my version of our family story, the context around it sprouted up (e.g. how my Vietnam veteran dad’s PTSD was responsible for part of the rift, the near-impossible pressures of the American Dream for immigrants). All of this confronted me with questions I knew were in me and would demand reconciliation (or the attempt at it) if I wanted to stop “itching” in my brown skin. After I began my book readings, my mom came to the debut reading and heard me vocalize the pain of my parents’ divorce, even her infidelity. She wept through it, and afterwards (picking up an armful of copies of my book) she told me that as painful as it was to hear, it finally gave her freedom. That healed—heals—me every time I return to these stories. I hope that anyone’s story can always lead to revelation and possibly healing for the author and audience.
Memoir is an increasingly popular genre but also a very controversial one that is vulnerable to critique. Many articles have been written accusing memoir writers of using their books to generate sympathy or as an outlet for narcissism. Can you speak to the value of memoirs, and why you chose to write within this genre?
I really thrive reading memoirs of contemporary, everyday people and of historical figures. They give me an unmediated feel for the authors’ view not just of the world around them, but of themselves. I guess this aspect of memoir—the meta-narrative voice—attracts me and probably programs me to be willing to offer sympathy, empathy, or even encounter narcissism because I respect the guts it ultimately takes to write one’s story and believe it is of value to him/herself and to someone else who chooses to read it.
Even though I value memoir as a reader, I actually did not choose to write a memoir. I did not believe it was one because traditional views of memoirs are that they span a lifetime. This chunk of my life didn’t ‘earn’ that. I labeled it a “collective text of creative nonfiction pieces” and wanted it to be shelved under “creative nonfiction” if possible (whatever that means)! I jokingly confessed to an audience that the material in this book is too vulnerable for a first book; it felt like I should have gained a readership of people who liked me enough before I showed them my ironic curriculum vitae—all the embarrassing and painful stuff that would get No One hired much less “friended”! This felt so raw that it might be a fifth book after several more mainstream short story collections or coming-of-age novels.
Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment takes a very interesting form, first in the overall design of a curriculum vitae, but also through the different structures you use to tell your story. You utilize short stories, poetry, prose, emails, and include a piece told through the voice of your husband. It reminds me of the innovative processes of conceptual poetry and their journey to redefine expectations of poetry. To what extent were you trying to challenge literary structure or conventions, and what or who were your influences?
I wrote each piece individually, without intention to compile a group of them into a book. Whatever I was trying to relate is how I chose the genre. Content inspired form. And sometimes, when I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say, I was also unsure of how to say it! That’s where emails, trying to write in my husband’s voice, or a pretend script (I’m a doctor and hand out diagnoses to patients) became the mode of expression. I did read/study a lot of innovative, subversive, outsider art work in graduate school for my MFA, from student work to well-known artists (not always books either, but visual art and visual literature—the fusion of both). My Fiction professor and thesis chair, Harold Jaffe, is the genesis of this exposure because he gave me reading lists I would not have known to compile, so beyond the artists themselves, Professor Jaffe is the influence that set me on this path. Compared to the risks others are taking in their writing, I know there is more for me to experiment with.
In the Introduction to my book, I mention that when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) I took a rare and treasured class, Filipino Literature. The professor read us a quote from a literary critic who essentially complained that Filipino writers were unable of writing novels. He believed we were confined to the limits of writing short stories. Whether or not this critic believed Filipino writers were incapable of “achieving” the preferred Western genre, I took it as a challenge to write my story—as a Filipina American—in whatever way was most honest. I have had to jump around and find other forms of writing because, in my experience, it reflects our ethnic identity journey, too. We go from island to island in our diasporas to find, express the stories that look and feel like us. I wasn’t consciously challenging the literary conventions as much as I was responding to the implicit expectations of Western literary conventions and how I did/did not “fit in.”
This book dives into the identity struggle faced by Filipinos like you, explores discrimination, and stands as an important contribution for the Filipino voice and Asian American women. How important was this project for you and have you had positive experiences or support from the Filipino or Asian American community? Do you feel that your identity pressures you to express yourself in certain ways in your writing?
During grad school, whenever I wrote something, I kept thinking, I don’t want to be stereotyped a ‘hyphenated-American’ writer with another story of assimilation. I purposefully tried to write without ethnic identity at the forefront. I just wrote what I was inspired to write. Later, when I was organizing and finishing the book, I saw that inevitably, everything I write has Filipino-ness in it because that is my core identity. It’s like what my BFF from college, Patricia, said one day. Someone found out she’s Mexican and asked her if she could cook him an ‘authentic Mexican meal.’ Patricia looked at him and shrugged, “Okay, but Everything I cook is Mexican!”
Everything I write is Filipina American!
I’m SO glad I didn’t over-react and over-edit the ‘ethnic notes’ out of my work. It would have been disingenuous and one dimensional. And because my book is now part of the Filipino American and American story, I have thoroughly enjoyed being invited to and included in many Filipino American and/or Asian American book readings, panel discussions, conferences, and guest speaker engagements. I have been able to connect with other Filipino Americans who come up to me and tell me they know what I write of firsthand. And through other artist collaborations, I am inspired to keep creating, to keep sharing, to keep learning. I also am able to reach out to those who are not Asian American but who relate to the themes and people in my pieces. I continue to be blessed by the growing community of readers who are finding connection with the enduring Filipino American narrative in small part through my body of work. While there is a bigger population I still want to converge with, it has been a high point of my teaching and writing career to share this living book with people. I hope I get to keep doing it with future books.
For more information about Ella deCastro Baron visit her website!