Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hijas Americanas

Today, I interview Rosie Molinary, author of " Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina. Rosie tells us how she turned a graduate thesis into a book and how she landed an invitation to the Today Show.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina with a love for reading, writing, and social justice issues. I, ultimately, received my teaching certification in Social Studies and taught and coached soccer at an under resourced high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Those years were the time of my life—I was absolutely crazy about my students and about doing everything that I could to empower them. Many had backgrounds like mine—first generation Americans (I am Puerto Rican, and we moved to the States when I was 2; from a lower socioeconomic class who spoke a language other than English at home—and I was compelled to do whatever I could to help them discover their voice and take charge of their lives. Because writing had been my passion as a girl—and the tool that led me to my voice—I felt compelled to use a good bit of exploratory writing in my classroom. I understood that my mission was about helping others discover their voices while using my own voice to advocate for those who could not raise their own voices. Eventually, I felt as if I needed to pursue further education in the teaching of writing so that I could be a better teacher. While enrolled in an MFA program with a focus on nonfiction and poetic forms, I worked at my undergraduate alma mater as the Director of Community Service which allowed me to further explore the issues of social justice and activism. When I completed my MFA, I was too spoiled to go back to traditional teaching (I had become addicted to sleeping past 6 am—the time I used to report to work, going out to lunch, and using the bathroom whenever I wanted). I started doing workshops, teaching in continuing education programs and continued my work at the college until 2005 when I left and became a full-time freelancer.

Tell us about your book, Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina.

Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image and Growing Up Latina reveals how hundreds of Latinas reconciled their body image, beauty perception, and ethnic identity as they came of age in a mainstream culture whose standards differ from those expressed in the homes where these women were raised. The book is part autobiography, part ethnography, and part call to action. The stories shared show the significance of each individual’s unique coming-of-age experience, but they also examine the universal truths that are part of all our experiences. These aren’t questions that are only Latino or female in nature. We all must face our personal challenges—and sometimes our impenetrable insecurities—with an individual honor and dignity that allows us to define who we are in the context of so many things: family, community, ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and more.

Your book was inspired by graduate essays you did for your master's degree. When did you realize you might have a book and start trying to market the proposal?
I initially saw the themes of body image, beauty perception, and ethnic identity emerge in my work while I was in graduate school for an MFA in creative writing. I was surprised by their prevalence and the impact these concepts clearly had on my own development. When I became a freelancer in the summer of 2005, I began to think about doing something with the book from graduate school that was on my shelf. In conceptualizing Hijas Americanas, I wanted to look at how Latinas who grew up in a culture that had one idea of beauty, femininity, and gender roles reconciled those expectations with both what they heard from mainstream America and with what they wanted for themselves.

How did you find your participants for the book?
I knew that I wanted women to share their coming of age experiences and so I decided to get women who were either in the midst of those experiences or were past them and were ready to look back. The criteria for the participants was that the women needed to be between the ages of 18-40, needed to self-identify as Latina, and needed to have been in the States since they were, at least, ten years old. Some of the women had immigrated here and some of them were fifth or sixth generation Tejanos. I interviewed about 100 women and then did a web-based survey that 521 women completed. Once I wrote up the Call for Participants, I sent it out to many of my contacts and then posted it on various networking boards and emailed Latina sororities, professional organizations, multi-cultural groups, etc. The internet is an amazing thing, I had well-over 400 volunteers in less than 2 weeks.

How did you find your agent/publisher?
I had no interest in publishing as a graduate student. In fact, I never attended any of the optional publishing workshops in graduate school. I had gone there to be a better teacher and that was my focus. At graduation, my final advisor really pushed me to reconsider, ultimately asking me if I would have felt better at 17 if I had read anything that I had just spent the last two years writing. He encouraged me to think about my classroom not as just one spot in a high school but as the world and pushed me to get the voice that I had shared in my graduate school thesis with the world. Ultimately, we made a deal that I would spend a year sending out my poems and essays to literary journal markets. One of those essays, The Latina in Me, was picked up for an anthology by Seal Press. That was the fourth piece to be picked up for a book anthology, but it was the first time that I had really been impressed with a publisher. Working with Seal Press stuck with me, and when I decided to pursue a book project, after I had become a freelancer, I decided to try them first since they worked with non-agented writers. Brooke Warner responded to by query letter really quickly, and we worked together to craft a book proposal that would work. She also served as my editor for the book.

What types of marketing have you and the publisher done on the book?
Seal helped me plan a few bookstore readings and signings and also helped me get on the docket for a couple book festivals. They provided me with pre-publication postcards, and I sent them to everyone I knew: former students, former teachers, friends, and even magazine editors that I had freelanced for or even pitched. That ended up scoring me some expert interviews with a few publications and an invitation to The Today Show. I created a blog, bookmark, reading guide, and tshirt that I used in different ways for promotion and discussion of these critical issues, and I also designed about ten workshops and launched a high school, college, and community tour which has taken me from Los Angeles to Chicago to do workshops. I did six months of active promotion this past fall and have several events lined up this spring and summer.

This is your first book. Was there anything about the process of writing a book vs. a shorter article that surprised you?
I really loved book writing because it allowed me to spend such time with the subject and the interviewees. I love learning, and I love engaging with people and providing them a venue to share their experiences and so the book was a great indulgence to me. I still appreciate writing articles, though, for many reasons including the fact that your sense of satisfaction as something comes to fruition is much more immediate.

Was there anything about selling your first book that surprised you?
The whole thing was such a surprise, but also a delight and a real privilege.

Who is your favorite author and do you feel your writing is like theirs? If so, how?
For nonfiction writers, I really love Anne Lamott and Alice Walker. Lamott has an earnestness and irreverence that I appreciate and sometimes see if my own writing, and Walker has such a sense of purpose and clarity. I do have a sense of purpose with my writing—a purpose that my high school students instilled in me—and I work everyday to have greater clarity in my writing. Finally, I really admire how Eve Ensler has allowed her writing to also be an instigator for activism. I am working on a social justice project right now that was inspired by Hijas, and that synergy between sensibilities, art, and motion are very important to me.

What is next for you?
I just submitted a book proposal to Seal for their consideration and am working on creating a scholarship giving circle inspired from what I learned while writing Hijas and the conversations I had while promoting it. I am still freelancing and teaching and loving the range of work that I am able to do in those areas.


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