by Paul Nelson
Two-Countries: US Daughters & Sons of Immigrant Parents is an anthology of flash memoir, personal essays, and poetry edited by Tina Schumann. The daughter of a Salvadoran immigrant has gathered a wide range of contributions from writers either born and/or raised in the U.S. by at least one immigrant parent.
Paul Nelson: How did you conceive of this book?
Tina Schumann: Well, this had been an idea that had been gestating with me for, god, probably two or three years before I started the call for submissions. I was in grad school at the time, and some other students were thinking about anthologies, and I knew that this was a topic I was really interested in, having lived through it myself. I put out the call for submissions in 2011, and had to stop taking submissions at the end of 2012. I had more than I could handle, and I had no idea, I was such a novice at this. I didn’t know how many people I could get into this. And was getting such quality work, that I was saying yes to more things than I was saying no to.
By 2013, 2014 I guess, I was looking for a publisher, and put together a flyer, went to AWP in Seattle, went around to most of the university presses. I’ve been told by some of my mentors that this would probably be a good course curriculum book for universities, so I was shooting for university presses. University of New Mexico Press showed interest, and I worked with them for about two years, but unfortunately that fell through. One of the outside readers for the University of New Mexico Press had been a professor in the program that I went to at PLU in Tacoma. She and I were just talking about it, and it turns out she’s published by Red Hen Press, and so was my introduction, Peggy Shumaker, who gives a lovely blurb on the back. She just asked me if I’d like to try them, and I was floored that it happened very quickly… It seems quickly after that, but probably a good five to seven years in the making.
Paul Nelson: There’s an art to anthologies, isn’t there?
Tina Schumann: Yeah.
Paul Nelson: It’s almost like there’s a poetics to it. I think of Jerome Rothenberg and all the beautiful anthologies- Technicians of the Sacred and Poems for the Millennium.
Tina Schumann: Right.
Paul Nelson: And this is like the way you make a poem, you make an anthology.
Tina Schumann: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think that’s true too, there has to be a continuity, there has to be a flow, certainly the topic has to be of interest to a certain segment of the population. I gave a great deal of thought to how I was going to order these works, and I knew that I didn’t just want it to be poetry. I’m a great reader of a memoir and biographies, so I wanted flash memoir, and I wanted personal essays. I thought and thought about it and it came down to last name alphabetical, because that created a flow in and of itself, so you go from flash memoir to two or three poems to a flash memoir and I think it flows really well. It breaks up the nationalities really well too.
Paul Nelson: In your introductory essay, you talk about your own experience and the key dropping incident is pretty startling. Can you talk about your background and that particular incident?
Tina Schumann: Sure. My mom was born in San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, in 1927. She came to this country when her father suddenly died, her mother had already been living here with several of my great aunts, my grandmother’s siblings. She came to the U.S. to San Francisco on a United Fruit banana boat because her father had been an importer with the United Fruit Company, so they gave his daughters two state rooms. So, I assume … I didn’t talk a lot to my mom about this. The story was they left the port city of San Salvador, went through the Gulf of Mexico into the port at New Orleans, and then took a two week train trip from New Orleans to San Francisco, quite a trip in those days. She was 14, raised in San Francisco from that point on in the Bay Area. Trained as a bank teller in her early 20’s, and the key story was probably told to me when I was 10 or 11, and can remember it making a huge impression on me.
As most children, you take your family for granted, and my mom was my mom, she had an accent, that’s something I never heard, it was just her voice. She trained as a bank teller, Bank of America, and apparently there was an incident with a bank manager where she had asked him for the keys to the vault a few times. The first time he dropped the keys on the floor, she assumed it was an accident. Second time, same thing. Third or fourth time, she knew something was going on, so she just asked him, “Why do you keep dropping the keys on the floor?” And he basically said, “I’m not going to risk touching the hands of a dirty spic.” This was utterly shocking to me, and this must be in the 1950s at this point in San Francisco.
I think that that story for me really said, “Your mom is something different, and by association you are something different, and you may need to be explained,” and while looking at my face you can’t see what I am, and that’s probably true for most people, that’s been true most of my life. Once people meet or hear my mother … In fact, even as a kid there felt like there was a certain sense of deception going on, like kids would think I had somehow lied to them, and really, you’re just living your life. You’re not going to flat out say to someone, “By the way, my mom has an accent, prepare yourself.”
Paul Nelson: But in that era, you went out of your way not to be different.
Tina Schumann: True.
Paul Nelson: To be American, to assimilate.
Tina Schumann: Absolutely. That was the philosophy my mom came into this country with, my grandmother saying, “You are an American now. You have to adapt, speak English as well as you can, don’t expect other people to …” That was the philosophy, and I think my mom carried that philosophy with her too, which is why she certainly spoke Spanish all the time to her sisters, and her family on the phone, and in Sunday dinners, but she didn’t speak it to me. She tried a couple of times and I would always answer in English, whereas if she had pressed it, I could be fully bilingual at this point. But yeah, I think she just thought, “You’re an American, so that’s what you need to, you need to learn English well.”
Paul Nelson: My mother thought we are just going to send the kids to Cuba for the summer.
Tina Schumann: Oh. Oh, no.
Paul Nelson: And then the economic blockade happened.
Tina Schumann: Right. There’s so many stories like that in the book too, from other Cubans who think we always thought we would go back.
Paul Nelson: Yeah.
Tina Schumann: “My parents always planned to…”
Paul Nelson: Yeah.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, wow.
Paul Nelson: What the fuck is wrong with people? Really, I mean what’s wrong with people? Dropping the keys like that, what the fuck goes through people’s minds?
Tina Schumann: It’s staggering that he could have gotten away with that, and he did, and what was her recourse? Lose her job? Yeah.
Paul Nelson: That was the recourse.
Tina Schumann: Right.
Paul Nelson: Make a stand and then not be able to feed your family.
Tina Schumann: Right, then she wouldn’t have, yeah. But it certainly stayed with her enough to pass it on to me.
Paul Nelson: Your family’s quite the melting pot in itself.
Tina Schumann: Yeah. Again, not knowing that as I was growing up, but my dad had two children from a previous marriage. He had married Tomiko in Japan when he was stationed there for the Korean conflict, and they had two children, my sister and a brother, and I grew up with both of them. Then my mom had two sons, my brother Ricardo who’s full Salvadorian, and my brother Henry who’s half Salvadorian and a mix of Scandinavian and things like that too. Yeah, we were a motley crew, and …
Paul Nelson: Mochi and papusas.
Tina Schumann: There you go, absolutely. That’s the way it was, yeah.
Paul Nelson: That’s fusion in the 60s.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, and we never thought of it. I think my dad definitely sought that out because he had been brought up in Jersey City and was surrounded by ethnicities of all kinds, Italians, Puerto Ricans, he told me that all the time, and I think he felt comfortable in that realm.
Paul Nelson: At the launch a few weeks ago, I mentioned that hearing Cuban accents, to me there’s like a feeling of home when I hear that. When we got this place here in this neighborhood, we immediately started calling it Rainier Beesh.
Tina Schumann: There you go.
Paul Nelson: Right, as the Cubans say Miami Beesh.
Tina Schumann: Yeah.
Paul Nelson: I saw a guide to Cuban pronunciations of different places in south Florida, and that wildlife area to the west of Miami is called Eberglay.
Tina Schumann: I love it.
Paul Nelson: I do, I love it too, so we call it Rainier Beesh, and it’s just a way of sort of planting out family flag here in the ground.
Tina Schumann: Right.
Paul Nelson: But the notion of accents as being familiar and pleasing is something that we grew up with.
Tina Schumann: Yeah. I think I’ve grown into that as I’ve gotten older. When I was younger, I was so surrounded by my mother’s family, and her story, her life was very central in our house, and we ended up having a rather fraught relationship, so I think more than anything, I blocked the language out as I was growing up, because it was so prevalent in our house. My dad’s family was on the east coast and so they were further away. But as I’ve gotten older, when I hear a Spanish accent on an older woman, I do kind of go, “Oh, oh, I miss my nanny, I miss my mom, I …” You miss them anyway, even with all the drama, you just miss so many things, yeah, and hearing that cadence brings that back.
Paul Nelson: There is a wealth of different writers in the book, and I was wondering if it was your own network that must be huge, or you mentioned that going to AWP helped spread the word, so that’s one way to get the word out there. I have the sense though that once you hatched this idea, that the book began to take on a life of its own and find its contributors in an organic way.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, the call for submissions went out in Poets & Writers Magazine. I did Crops and Duotrope, which are a few online resources that a lot of writers go to, and a lot of the submissions came through that way. A few of them I did solicit purposefully. I practically tackled Richard Blanco in the hallway at Boston because I knew I wanted him in this, and he was more than happy, he said, “Absolutely, just here’s my number call, me, we’ll, you know, get that done.”
I was shooting for some names like Naomi Shihab Nye, and Timothy Liu, Li-Young Lee who happened to fall into my lap out of serendipity, but to have a mix of those names that are more known, along with the folks who were sending me their work, who were incredible writers, through those submissions. It was a mishmash of both the call for submission and then me going out and reaching out to certain people for it.
Paul Nelson: Given the revival of xenophobia in the last couple of years, the book is beginning to look like it’s prophetic.
Tina Schumann: Serendipity I guess, and I’m sad about that and I’m glad about that, it is it couldn’t be better timing. I wrote it when of course Obama was in office. It came out in October of this year, so it’s just after this whole unbelievable debacle that we’re in. I’m so glad. I hope it sparks hard conversations for people and I hope it supports the fact that this is America, what’s in this book is that’s what America is and what America was supposed to be, and that’s the beauty of America. I’m glad and I’m sad about the timing, really.
Paul Nelson: You know that’s the beauty of America because you’re an outsider or you’re on the margins, in a way, because of your heritage.
Tina Schumann: Yes, yeah.
Paul Nelson: I see that … I go to other countries and they say, “You don’t seem like an American,” and I say, “Thank you.”
Tina Schumann: Yes, I get that too, right. You seem like a European, yeah.
Paul Nelson: When they say, “You don’t seem like an American,” they’re talking about an ugly American who’s …
Tina Schumann: Right, the prototypical, right, cliché, which apparently exists, and I feel from what’s happened that I was somehow naïve and innocent to that fact. I always thought that was a joke, but they apparently exist, and they exist strongly. I’ve lived on the west coast most of my life, or the east coast, so I’ve been in that blue range. I don’t know what to say about that, we just have to keep working at it, we just have to keep putting out books like this and saying, “We’re here,” and, “Don’t you want to live in this world with us? Don’t you want there to be variety, and a mix?” That’s the beauty of all kinds of things in life is the spice of life, to be cliché, yeah.
Paul Nelson: But a book like this, we could … In the sea of white supremacy, I mean it’s …
Tina Schumann: Yeah. It would never reach their ears, I don’t think it would ever. I hate to be a pessimist, but I don’t think it would ever come into their realm in any way.
Paul Nelson: Right.
Tina Schumann: And that would be a huge win if even one of them picked it up and went, “Oh, I had no idea. What’s this about?” But you have to be open minded to even get there.
Paul Nelson: Well, there you have it.
Tina Schumann: Yeah.
Paul Nelson: That’s the key right there, open minded.
Tina Schumann: Yeah.
Paul Nelson: Yeah. How do you begin to talk about the individual pieces in the book? You’ve mentioned a few of the more famous folks that are in here, I mean I have a list of people that I found interesting.
Tina Schumann: Right. The range I think is probably where I would start. I have a poem in there from Itoro Udofia, this was her first publication, she was thrilled to get it, we worked on the poem together, I wanted it to be a part of this. So, we have someone like Itoro who’s got her first piece published, talking about making a dish with her mother from their country, Nigeria.
Paul Nelson: Fufu.
Tina Schumann: Fufu.
Paul Nelson: Daughter of the Diaspora.
Tina Schumann: It’s lovely, yes. It’s a lovely poem. Then you go all the way up to Naomi Shihab Nye, and Li-Young Lee, and in-between are these very human stories being told that anyone could relate to. They’re about families, they’re about encountering the world outside of your family. I think anyone could relate to those stories, and so I like that it has a range, not only a range of ethnicities from German to someone who had an English parent, to Cuban, to Taiwan, to Nigeria, to Columbia.
Paul Nelson: They are stories about families, but with luminous details of a culture we likely don’t know much about.
Tina Schumann: True, and that was my hope, right.
Paul Nelson: BK Tuong, Living in the Hyphen, another example.
Tina Schumann: Yes, he’s so good. He’s such a good poet and such a sweet guy. Yeah, those poems blew me away when I got those from BK. His story from Cambodia, a tough one, but a very common one I think, coming to this country after his parents had been put in camps, and his grandmother raising him.
Paul Nelson: Fleeing the Khmer Rouge.
Tina Schumann: Very different immigrant stories from what my mom encountered. I mean my mom came from, a lot of people don’t realize this, but El Salvador is very much a two class society, especially when she lived there. There was the very poor and there was the very wealthy, and she had a chauffeur growing up, she had maids, there was an aviary in the middle of their house. She came from a very different perspective within a very poor country.
Paul Nelson: That two class thing wouldn’t happen in a country like this.
Tina Schumann: Hm, really?
Paul Nelson: The phrase used to condemn those countries was banana republic, and that’s what we’re becoming.
Tina Schumann: Right, yeah.
Paul Nelson: Without the bananas.
Tina Schumann: She came to this country on a banana boat essentially.
Paul Nelson: BK Tuong’s poem of his brother eating a steak and having two different dipping sauces, one traditional Thai, and one A1.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, it really makes the statement, doesn’t it?
Paul Nelson: It does.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, and looking at that and even noticing that, “You’ve got choices?” And, yeah, right.
Paul Nelson: And how does it end? It ends … I’m going to pull this up here. “Why do you have two sauces for your steak?”
“Well, when I get bored with one sauce, I go for the other. I choose whatever pleases me at the moment. It’s all good bro.”
Tina Schumann: It’s all … I love that last line, yeah.
Paul Nelson: But it’s interesting that I choose whatever pleases me at the moment. This is, I mean it says so much– like any good poem, there’s such subtext to it.
Tina Schumann: Right.
Paul Nelson: What is the subtext for you?
Tina Schumann: He’s got the luxury of boredom, first of all. He’s got the luxury of choices, and he’s got an American’s perspective, I think it’s a cousin or a brother, but who’s been here longer than BK. He’s got choices, and I think that was …
Paul Nelson: And he could dip into either culture at his choosing.
Tina Schumann: Right, absolutely.
Paul Nelson: Yeah, he could choose to skim the best from either one.
Tina Schumann: Right.
Paul Nelson: Right, fantastic. Prageeta Sharma, a situation for Ms.-
Tina Schumann: Ms. Buswah
Paul Nelson: Yes.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, she’s going to be here in January at Elliot Bay, and we’ll read that, she’ll come down from Montana. That was another writer I sought out. I had read that poem online and thought that would, I would really like that. It’s different. It’s a narrative, it’s well-known, it’s probably anthologized elsewhere, but I had wanted Prageeta to be a part of this as well.
Paul Nelson: And a fantastic writer.
Tina Schumann: Yeah, oh yeah.
Paul Nelson: And presence, and human. I’m reminded of this Seattle Times article of a week or so ago, that said these Trump buyers were having remorse because they expected Trump to go after immigrants, but the bad guys, not people in their neighborhood who are doing good things.
Tina Schumann: Oh, yeah, not in my backyard, yeah.It’s a mentality I so can’t relate to, that you can’t see, that all of society has the bad, good, and the indifferent, and everything in-between. You can’t just label one culture as good or bad.
Paul Nelson: Yeah.
Tina Schumann: People want black and white answers. Not to make a pun, but there are no black and white answers, we have to deal with the gray all the time, yeah.
Paul Nelson: Others in the book you want to call out?
Tina Schumann: There’s a poem called My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears, and that was another one I sought out as well. Being a 12 year old, watching the situation go down, and loving your grandmother, and having the two prototypical Anglo women walk into the bathroom and tell the 12 year old, “She can’t do that. Tell her she can’t do that.” To be in that situation of being translator, first of all, and also having to tell your grandmother who you adore, that she can’t do something that is so common to her, that is so a part of her religion, a part of her culture. I’m getting chills just talking about it, thinking about being in that situation. Of course, the author makes it charming and lovely, but I think of that little girl having to be in that situation between those adults and being the translator, and choosing in the poem, I won’t give away too much, but choosing to not say anything, to just smile and nod.
Paul Nelson: What’s the highest outcome of the book?
Tina Schumann: Yeah, I’ve been asked that before. Well, I guess on the bottom line it’s to get good reviews, and to make sales, and to be widely read, but like I said before, would I like some hard discussions to come out of it? Yeah. Would I like someone to be educated? Absolutely. I think the highest outcome though, would be to reach the children of immigrant who are not creative writers, to say to them, “Look, here’s some stories that you can relate to, here’s how to be in the world, you’re not alone.” I think that would be the highest outcome for me, yeah.
Paul Nelson: What would your advice be as a workshop teacher for someone who has a story like that?
Tina Schumann: Well, write it down. Don’t censor yourself, first of all, that’s the first thing. Read widely is the first thing, but tell your story, don’t be afraid, get it down on paper, and who knows where it will go from there. If it’s nothing more than satisfying you that you got your story down, great, you can pursue it further if you want to. If you really want to be a creative writer and write those kinds of stories, you can pursue that and do it, and here’s an example, here’s 70 people who do that and are successful at it, yeah, and hopefully are touching other lives, yeah.
Paul Nelson: I’m really grateful you did this.
Tina Schumann: Thanks, Paul.
Paul Nelson: And I’m grateful that I’m included in the book!
Tina Schumann: Thank you. Yeah, me too, especially after you read your poem [at the launch event] how it just resonated with me again, yes, I picked really good stuff, yeah.
Paul Nelson: Thanks for your time, and congrats on your good work.
Tina Schumann: Oh, thanks Paul, I appreciate it.
Paul Nelson is a poet, interviewer, father and literary activist engaged in a 20-year bioregional cultural investigation of Cascadia. He currently lives in Rainier Beach.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to laverrue