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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

Tomás Morín’s ‘Where Are You From: Letters to My Son’ explores Brown identity in America

Amelia Davis / Thresher

By Hamza Saeed     1/23/24 9:17pm

​​Writing to an audience that does not yet exist — some may think it’d be a bit tricky. In his latest book, “Where Are You From: Letters to My Son,” assistant professor of creative writing Tomás Q. Morín sets out to do just that, writing a series of letters to his, at the time, unborn son. Letters that, as Morín puts it, “offer advice and personal perspective on issues of love, growth and the future his son will have to face.” Morín discusses how he, as a person of color, inhabits the present day in America  — and what it means for the landscape his son will be born into.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rice Thresher: Who are you? Who are we sitting across from? What parts of you are just so present at any given moment that you have no choice but to reveal them when prompted by those words?

Tomás Morín: The first thing that comes to mind is that I’m a father. I’m a father, I’m a writer, I’m a son, I’m a teacher. I think I started teaching in 1998, and there was only about a three year break in there. So all my adult life, I’ve been a teacher.

RT: Could you talk about that process of going from a train of thought in your head to actually publishing this book? Let us in, dispel the myths! Reveal the story of this story!

TM: It’s kind of like running your first marathon. Do you have the stamina to sustain a writing project for a whole book that’s in prose? I didn’t think I would write another prose book after my memoir.

I started writing this book when I just started my first tenure track job at Drew University in Madison, N.J. I was an expectant father … I was suddenly visible in a way that I had not been before. By that, I mean, I stood out. Whereas in Texas, I believe I blend in. 

I was just kind of in a dark place. The next thing I knew, the letter that I had started composing for [my son] started getting longer and started feeling more like an essay letter. I thought, “This will probably never get published, so let me just cut loose and be as free and as wild as possible on the page with zero thoughts about publication.” The first draft of the book came out in eight weeks. Then it just kind of sat for a while. Then it was about trying to find an editor for whom the book would resonate. I was very fortunate that the book resonated with Courtney Ochsner, who has edited my memoir. It just kind of went from there.

RT: A written record is a powerful thing. A written work finalizes a train of thought, and when done elegantly, it makes a near immortal statement. What made you decide to write to your then unborn son?

TM: The jumpstart was the fact that I became a parent later in life. I don’t consider myself a person who is old, but I have friends that I went to high school with who had become parents when they were 20. And here I was 42 years old, becoming a parent for the first time. When you go to the pediatricians office, and they call you and your partner “geriatric parents” because you’re in your 40s and they don’t mean that as a joke — suddenly, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Okay, this is, this is a real thing.” 

I started counting my years ahead in a different way than I had before. When my son turns 18, he’s graduating from high school, how old will I be? When he’s 25? Or he’s 30? How old will I be then? How can I create this time capsule of who I am, at this point, struggling with racism and white supremacy in this country and what it means to be a person of color? Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to any of us. Just because it’s mathematically possible doesn’t mean we’ll be here tomorrow or 50 tomorrows from now. 

RT: You’re quite the accomplished scholar and author. You are the author of “Machete,” “Let Me Count the Ways,” “A Larger Country” and “Patient Zero,” as well as an established editor and translator. Can you compare your latest book to those works?

TM: What happened in the writing of “Where Are You From” is that all of my skills and abilities as a poet merged with my abilities as a writer of prose. Some of the passages [in this book] are just as good, if not better than any poetry I’ve ever written. I feel much more vulnerable in this book because I wasn’t really thinking of an audience, except for my son. Because the book is written in the letter form, as letters to him, I’m just so much more open because I want to be open with him. Why would I hide behind style or hide behind figurative language from my own child?

RT: Your take on superhero movies? Do you believe in Marvel bashing, or do you want to defend—

TM: Absolutely defend them. As a collector of comics from childhood, I waited patiently for a very long time, and had actually given up hope that the technology of filmmaking would one day be able to recreate what you see in the pages. When I think of “Infinity War,” 20 movies all interlinked, how is that not “1001 Arabian Nights,” “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey?” It’s this epic work of interlinked stories that all culminates in one moment. We poets and writers have been doing that for a long time. They just hadn’t been doing it in film. 

RT: I want to ask, why poetry? What is it about poetry as an art, a medium, a method of communication, that makes you gravitate toward it to tell your story? I guess, in a way, can you give me a pitch for poetry?

TM: One of the things that sets poetry aside from all the other genres of writing is that it’s the most condensed form of language. You’re getting the most meaning out of the fewest amount of words. This democratizes poetry, rather than make it an art form of the elite. When a reader engages with poetry, they bring all of their experiences, feelings and knowledge to that poem and speak with it. The poem speaks right back. I think that’s part of the reason why we turn often to poetry during times of grief, whether it be personal grief or national grief. Poems have language for the things that we don’t have language for.

RT: You mention the idea of being behind enemy lines in your book. I presume that this analogy was evoked by an overwhelming sense of isolation. In your case, it seems that your skin color, and maybe more importantly, your lived experience, separates you from these other people. Do you think that BIPOCs will always have this sense of being “behind enemy lines” in this country? Or do you think that your son, or maybe even his son will ever be able to put down their gun?

TM: I think context is incredibly important. For example, in New York City, I didn’t spend time in spaces where I felt the same way, where I felt “behind enemy lines.” But the city of Madison is such a wealthy place, and a very white and privileged space. As I mentioned in the book, the majority of the people in town who were POC were wearing uniforms or aprons. They worked there, but they didn’t live there … They were so confused to see someone who looked like me just strolling down the grocery aisle and not wearing an apron and restocking a shelf. There’s such a long legacy of wealth and privilege creating a white oasis in places like Madison. In Texas, I don’t have those hunched shoulders, I don’t carry myself in the same way. I don’t feel on edge, constantly bracing for something that is said or done against me. Not to say that Texas isn’t problematic and doesn’t have its own issues.

RT: You discuss the idea of being mixed and you talked about the importance of labels. Historically, the “one drop rule” has been a tool for the institution of racism. One drop of non-“pure” blood is all it took to suppress this social mobility of a person of color? “Choosing one over the other” or “race traitor” get thrown around a lot in this conversation. What are your general thoughts on these ideas regarding the mixed identity?

TM: The image that comes up in my mind is crabs in a barrel, crawling over one another to try to get and stay on the top. I see the barrel as a metaphor for the idea that if you’re mixed, there’s some sort of primary state of being. Depending on who you ask, that may be white. I feel like the whole thing, intellectually, is such a toxic dump of ideas with roots in preserving power, status and privilege. I hate all of it. That’s one of the reasons why, in the book, I spend so much time talking about labels. What can we come up with if we just go completely wild? How can we redefine things, how can we relabel things? How can we make language serve our community better? We’re not here to serve language, language is here to serve us.

RT: In this book, you make references to a sub, sub basement and a burrow, these places of sanctuary, both physically and spiritually. What are your favorite places on campus to disassociate, meditate or stop and smell the roses? Places where you can get in touch with that inner self?

TM: At the top of the list is the Chapel. It’s like a little oasis on campus. You walk into that space, and your body automatically recognizes that you have just entered a sort of cave that was made for silence, reflection and stillness. There’s just something about that architecture that I absolutely love. The other place, which is also a type of church, is the library. The library is a temple to knowledge, creativity and learning. My favorite places in the library are up in the stacks. Just surrounded by pages and pages of books, looking for a particular book, but hoping and knowing that I’m going to find something else. 

RT: You talk about a sense of hardness, a sense of resilience, you have built up over the course of your life as a result of what you have had to overcome and face in your position. Do you want your son to build that same hardness? Maybe, you know, the hardness doesn’t necessitate that we grow bitter with age, right? But even if it does, is that a bad thing?

TM: I think resilience and bitterness are different. Can bitterness give us resilience? Yes, we can absolutely draw resilience from bitterness. But I also feel like bitterness, fear and anger take so much energy and life force. They all have their place, but when we get stuck in a chronic state of these emotions, then we become depleted. The lessons that I’m going to give my son as a parent will hopefully give him the strength and resilience to deal with certain things, but the world is also going to present him with struggles and problems that I’ve never had. He will have to build his own resilience. This book is not going to shield my son from experiencing racism and bigotry, but I hope that between what he learns from his family and from this book, he can deal with it in a way that maybe I wasn’t able to. 

RT: Is there anything you want to say to the readers, any final statement you would like to make?

TM: While the book is written from one father to his son, I feel like it’s a book for everybody. I feel like what’s inside of it would resonate with a lot of people and, you know, in spite of the fact that it deals with some heavy subjects, there’s also a lot of lightheartedness in there. 

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