Dini Karasik is a writer with deep Laredo roots who lives in Kensington, Maryland.
She is the editor and publisher of the online literary journal, Origins. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Toast, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, short stories in Wild Quarterly, Red Savina Review, Sixers Review, Bartleby Snopes, and her poetry in The Más Tequila Review, Zombie Logic Review, and Crack the Spine. Karasik’s story “Amalia on the Border” was a finalist in The Texas Observer’s 2013 short story contest, and “Elsa & Segundo” won second place in the Bethesda Magazine 2017 Short Story Contest. Her latest story, “On the Other Side” will appear in PANK Magazine’s 2018 Winter Issue.
Along with her madrina, Laredoan Gilda Valdez Carbonaro, she wrote a Mexican food and culture blog called Dos Gildas.
Karasik is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law and practiced law as an attorney before dedicating herself full-time to writing, editing, and managing her writing workshop, The Writer’s Loft.
LareDOS: For LareDOS readers who don’t know you yet, please tell us about your Laredo connections.
DK: My mother was born in Mexico City but settled in Nuevo Laredo and then Laredo, Texas in the late 50s. She graduated from Nixon High School in 1967 and later that year met my father, an Irish-American guy from Detroit stationed at the Air Force base in Laredo. I was born a year or so later in Mt. Clemen’s, Michigan.
We moved to Laredo when I was 2 or 3 (I went to Pat Ann’s Nursery School). My dad was a DJ for a time, at KVOZ, and he used to play Disney tracks for me at bedtime, I remember. A few years later, we moved to Houston and around that time my parents divorced.
My mom worked full-time as a secretary and sent me back to Laredo to spend the summers and school breaks with my grandmother, María de la Luz Duran. Everyone knew her as “La Güera.” She was like the unofficial mayor of Laredo. I was her first grandchild, la nieta consentida. When I was very young, she had a boarding house downtown on Lincoln Street—across from Gibson’s—where I would dress up and perform the entire soundtrack to “Cabaret” for these little old ladies, chiveras, who’d come from Mexico to shop in bulk — electronics, jewelry, clothes, toys — and sleep in a communal bedroom, gossiping into the early morning hours as they packed their bags.
In those days, my great-grandmother was alive and lived down the street, also on Lincoln, near the railroad tracks. My aunts and uncles came and went, but that house anchored the family for many years. I also lived there during my sophomore year of high school, at Nixon. I was in plays at LJC’s Laredo Little Theatre and also in the opening credits of “La Sombra,” a T.V. show on KGNS hosted by my then-friend and fellow-thespian, Mario Villarreal. So many memories!
I learned to drive a car in Laredo. I went clubbing across the river where I smoked cigarettes and drank Cuba Libres at Domani’s (Domani’s!!) and pretended to be a lot older than I was. I had crushes on boys and went on dates where I sat in the front seat of pick up trucks (sans seatbelt) and went cruising la Avenida Guerrero. I made many close friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and have great memories of being with my cousins.
There were also things going on in my life that were difficult and dark. My grandmother struggled to provide for the family, selling ropa usada downtown and at la pulga at the Bordertown drive-in. She had seven children, all of whom had their own families and struggles by this time. And then there was my mother’s descent into mental illness. Then one day I left to live with my father and stepmother on the East Coast.
LareDOS: Your stories,“Amalia on the Border,” “Ghosting on the Rio Grande,” and “The Getaway” are set in Laredo. They are brilliant evocations of pre-NAFTA Laredo. Although as you say, you have written in a spirit of preserving a fun and carefree past, those stories are far from nostalgic idylls. Are their bitter moments a reflection of your mixed experience as a girl there?
DK: Yes, I think so. Just before moving to Laredo in 1984, I had spent two years living with my dad, stepmother, and baby half-sister in a Houston suburb where I remember one friend’s father was a member of the KKK, something I discovered when I was invited to spend the night at her house. I was very fair-skinned, had no accent, and had been raised by a mother who had done her best to assimilate in a white world. No one knew that my background was Mexican-American unless they saw me with my mother or on the border or otherwise in that context. I also had a very unconventional mother who traveled in Houston’s art circles and had exposed me to avant-garde music, fine art, and theater from a young age. By the time I moved in with my grandmother the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I was wearing long trench coats with pink leather booties and my hair was nearly buzzed, it was so short, with a long section up front that hung over my eyes. This was not a typical look in the Laredo of the 1980s. I didn’t fit in in the suburbs of Houston and I didn’t fit in in Laredo either. I was an outsider where ever I went — or at least that’s how I felt.
My grandmother, by this time, had begun hoarding. Our un-airconditioned house was stacked floor to ceiling in some rooms with used clothing that she intended to sell at the flea market. (My wardrobe was picked from these piles.) The open-air garage was filled to the brim with used and broken appliances, old bicycles, car parts, and other detritus. Once my grandmother spray painted our old Cutlass Supreme when I complained about its bad paint job. The result was a worse-looking car, with silver streaks and polka dots.
I had been in this world off and on throughout my life, but I was now a teenager and newly aware of our poverty, sensitive to the ways in which others viewed my family and me. I suppose there was a certain kind of shame that set in, but also a great deal of confusion about who I was and where I belonged.
Then, a year and half later, I moved back in with my dad and stepmom — who were able to provide for me in ways my mother and grandmother could not — and I found myself in an entirely new culture. I had left the banks of the Rio Grande and now lived in an affluent section of Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C. I remember not unpacking my suitcases for several weeks. And that feeling of being an outsider set in deep.
So, to come back to your question. My writing is both a reflection of those more difficult experiences I had as a child and teenager in Laredo, but also a way of appreciating my roots and my family in a way that perhaps I wasn’t capable of as a young girl. It’s also important to me to push back against the stereotypes of Mexican-Americans that I encounter all the time, and explore the nuances and complexities of my own mixed identity and the worlds that inform it.
LareDOS: In your Origins interview with the Korean-American novelist, Min Jin Lee, you asked what surprised her about what she had written when the novel was finished. Have any of your stories surprised you at the end of their writing?
DK: It often happens that I set out to write a story about one thing but new themes emerge during the writing process. Sometimes I’m not even aware of them until I’ve nearly finished a draft. But I like the illumination that can occur when my subconscious informs my conscious mind. For example, in “Elsa & Segundo,” I wanted to write a story about a Mexican immigrant with a good but complicated life in the United States, a story counter to the immigrant narratives we often hear in popular culture and politics.
Elsa and Segundo each have their own businesses. They own their home. They do not have children, so they have money to spend on themselves and their aging parents. And I thought, I’m going to write about how Elsa wants to go home, back to Mexico, in spite of all the gains and stability and success. As I finished writing the story, I realized that the piece was also about marriage and the ways in which Elsa has come to feel lonely and disconnected from a man she’s known most of her life. But it is also about an immigrant who yearns to return to her roots, and so she makes a concrete and secretive plan to do so.
LareDOS: In one of your poems, “Why I Cried in a Roomful of Poets,” a voice says:
Once I read you
I knew your story and
was forever changed
in the corner of my mind
reserved for rumination.
we didn’t know each other
yet you were with me,
your story intertwined
You have written about the openings to empathy in stories and poetry. Would you like to have readers who could be changed by reading your stories, who could feel your stories intertwined with theirs?
DK: It’s funny…if I was writing or referencing empathy with this poem, it wasn’t my intention.
This poem is about a well-known poet I met at a writer’s conference. I had signed up to work with him specifically because I related to his work. Our relationships with our mothers rang similar. But when I met him, he turned out to be a very different kind of person, not someone I related to at all. It was an extremely disappointing experience. Coincidentally, my grandmother had died just a week earlier and, right after this unfortunate interaction with this poet, I was back in Laredo for her funeral.
I think in some ways the poem is about a failure of empathy and how to recover from that. But I was a different, less experienced writer and conference-goer back then. I’ve learned not to idealize famous writers. It always backfires.
LareDOS: You posted recently on your writer’s workshop blog that “Our job as writers is to tell a diversity of stories, to use storytelling for good, to hope for empathy as an outcome.” What aout characters who are creepy, or just plain bad? Is it a good idea for readers to empathize with bad guys, too?
DK: It makes sense to me that the act of reading or hearing a story results in a newfound appreciation for another person, place, or experience. We seem to be living at a time when bright lines have been drawn and we are emerging as a divided country. One antidote to this is empathy.
A border wall is a lot easier to sell to the taxpayers if we perceive Mexicans as “rapists and criminals,” for example.
Empathy is understanding, it’s putting yourself in another’s shoes and imagining a life not your own. Everyone has a story and I believe we should listen and know each other’s complex stories. That includes “bad guys.”
LareDOS: You commented that on a recent trip to San Miguel de Allende you planned to do some travel writing: “But I didn’t write a single sentence. I was too busy, eating, drinking, laughing, walking, looking. Time got away from me.” This experience led you to think about how each of us experiences both time and stories in different ways. You observe about your writing, “When someone reads it, it is re-imagined, filtered through a unique set of emotions and life experience.”
When you are writing, do you try to imagine how your unknown readers will reimagine the stories you tell?
DK: Not really. I think that would be an impossible feat. When we read or hear a story, we come to it as individuals. No two people will imagine the world or the character they read about the same way. In our mind’s eye we fill in the blanks, input details, envision the world of the story with infinitely different details. This happens each time we re-read or revise a story. It’s the natural evolution of the imagination. All I can hope for is that a reader will relate to what I’ve written or perhaps think about things in a new way.
LareDOS: For several decades now, questions of whether the stories we read are authentic have come up whenever writers tell stories about characters who are from different races or cultures. A perfect example is the scandal over the best-seller The Education of Little Tree in the 1990’s when it was revealed that this supposed autobiography of a Cherokee was actually written by a white supremacist from Alabama who had worked with George Wallace. A book that had previously been admired by readers from all sorts of backgrounds suddenly turned into an untouchable. Clearly we readers demand that writers have some sort of ID to validate their creations. Without this identity card, it is easy for writers to be accused of cultural appropriations.
With that anxiety in mind, what is the authenticity and authority that legitimates your writing? Or is authenticity and authority something that you find in the words you write, and not your birth certificate or CV?
DK: I think this a great question and one that many writers and artists grapple with. I read recently about a white artist who did a painting of Emmit Till in his casket. His face is obscured with broad brushstrokes of paint, depicting the violence and disfiguring at the hands of the murderer.
The painting is disturbing, provocative, and symbolic of the ways in which systemic racism destroys, dismantles and disregards black identity, in my opinion. The artist, Dana Schultz, says the painting was an exercise in empathy, but does Schultz, a white woman, have a right to tell this story? Perhaps, but there are other voices that have been historically under-represented in the art (and literary) world who also have something to say about black bodies and the violence that’s done to them. So, it’s completely understandable that many African American artists are opposed to this piece and protesting its showing at the Whitney Biennial.
I once had an experience at a reading. An author of color — but not Latinx — told the story of two women stopped by ICE. I found the story to be one-dimensional and it made me uncomfortable to listen to it. I understood that the author was trying to elicit empathy for undocumented immigrants, but it portrayed the women in such a way that, in my opinion, entrenched stereotypes about Latinas as maids and victims. I am not likely to read anything by this author again, based on this experience.
Then you have a writer like Colum McCann and his critically-acclaimed novels Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic and Zoli. He is Irish, from Ireland, yet he expertly tells these stories from the perspectives of people who are wholly unlike him.
So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one. These discussions are a sign of the times, of a nation that is negotiating its identity and socio-political priorities. Long-held notions about race, ethnicity and gender are dissolving. Political alliances are shifting. Changing demographics are testing and subverting white supremacy.
As for me, I try to be true to myself and my characters. I want to tell stories that subvert stereotypes and portray the universalities in our lives. That is the kind of writer I strive to be. But I am also someone with a vantage point that lends itself to crossing borders, coloring outside the lines. I am the product of two discrete cultures. I know the world that I know. This is my authority and legitimacy. But as someone born of the inbetween, I’m always writing and re-writing my own story in search of authenticity.
LareDOS: One of the most powerful pieces you have written, “A Country Called My Mother,” published two years ago in The Toast, had to do with the end of your mother’s life. That piece was a reckoning, a summation of many events in her life and yours that had brought both of you to this one place, to this moment of wrenching honesty. What did it cost you to write that piece?
DK: As I mentioned before, my mother struggled her entire life with serious mental health issues. This impacted me greatly, as her daughter. We were often estranged, and when we were in touch, our relationship was strained. This conflict sometimes reveals itself in my writing. I think writing about her and our relationship, even in a fictional context, is a way for me to process my life with her and without her. Perhaps it also allows me to conduct an examination, search for answers. Why was she so flawed? What was it about her upbringing? How much did her experience as an immigrant come into play? The family had very little and those early years in Laredo were a struggle. If she had been wealthy or had been born in a decade when mental health resources were more widely available, would that have made a difference?
As for the piece you reference here, I think a part of me hoped that it would serve as a mirror, that she might see herself through my eyes and make a change. When it was published, we were out of communication, so I don’t know if she ever read it. She died several months later.
What did it cost me? Nothing more than it cost to be her daughter.
The journal Origins: http://www.originsjournal.com/
Karasik’s work online: https://dkwritings.wordpress.com/other-writing/
Karasik’s interview of novelist Min Jin Lee: http://www.originsjournal.com/more-interviews/2016/12/15/min-jin-lee-identity-love-and-exile
Laredo native Dan Clouse enjoys reading good writing in all genres but especially English essays and poetry and Spanish novels. He writes fiction himself in CV’s and for after-dinner stories. This is his first interview for LareDOS.