Q&A with Carlos E. Cortés, author of “Rose Hill”

Carlos Cortes

Photo by Michael Elderman

A poignant memoirist, Carlos E. Cortés brings his past to life in Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before its Time, portraying multiracial relationships and the impact they had on the development of his identity. Sometimes hilarious and at times tragic, this powerful narrative takes the reader on a journey of self-realization that speaks to us on both personal and universal levels.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Why did you write your memoir?

Actually, it started as a gift to my family.  I simply wanted to chronicle family stories and personal recollections in a roughly chronological format, with the hope that others in the family would later add their own stories.  I wasn’t thinking about publishing it.

So, what is the intended audience for Rose Hill

My intended audience?  Anyone.  Everyone.  I think Rose Hill has something to offer for just about any reader.

It’s a book for people who like reading personal stories that also shed light on twentieth-century America.  It’s for those interested in gaining more insight into the mystery and dynamics of family, ethnicity, religion, and intermarriage.  Based on my experience with [my play] “A Conversation with Alana,” I think it has special meaning for those who are involved in or are the products of intermarriage.  And when I say intermarriage, I mean in its many dimensions.  For my folks, this meant tensions and clashes of ethnicity, religion, class, culture, and language.

Do you think your personal experience speaks to a larger audience, not just those involved in intermarriage?

Absolutely.  I think just about everyone can discover personal connections in Rose Hill: family; heritage; conflict; joys; disappointments; fun; irony; mystery; clashing perceptions; cross-cultural tensions; youthful rites of passage.  And, on top of that, I hope they find the book to be good reading and good storytelling.

Speaking of storytelling, I found your narrative voice to be very distinctive and poignant.  Where did that come from? 

I’m not exactly sure.  My voice is probably a blend of my Jewish grandmother’s gift of inventive story-telling and my Mexican father’s ironic vision of the world.  Maybe add to that my experience doing lots of public speaking and workshops, in which I incorporate narrative and anecdotes.

So when I wrote Rose Hill, I did what came naturally.  I tried to tell my story as simply, concisely, and vividly as possible, always trying to place myself in the moment when things were actually happening.  I try to follow Michelangelo’s advice: “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”  When I write, I carve, trying to eliminate unnecessary verbiage.

Was there a particular process that aided you in this endeavor?

I focused on telling stories: personal stories; interesting stories; sad stories; funny stories; joyous stories; and painful stories.  I tried to let the stories themselves provide the deeper revelations, rather than my loading them down with overly detailed analysis and labored pontification.

For example, rather than writing lengthy descriptions of my parents and grandparents, I tried to illuminate them through revealing vignettes.  In that way, when readers encounter family tensions and social conflicts, I hope they think and care about my family as real, complex, feeling people: my unlettered grandmother struggling to read to me about King Arthur; my grandfather frustrated while trying to interest me in his construction business; my dad’s delusional attempt to become a polo player; and my mom’s bitter clashes over her singing.

Did you draw on many family documents?

Not really.  You’ve read the book, so you know that, at certain points, the discovery of family documents plays an important role in my journey.  But for the most part, I wrote from memory, not from documents.  In fact, I see Rose Hill as kind of a mystery story of conflicting memories: the way that family members, including me, preserved, revised, and relayed their memories.  In moments of conflict, this was their main way of defending their versions of truth and, in some respects, maintaining their self-respect.

Do you feel that your book is more of a reinterpretation of your past than a recording of your experiences?

 Absolutely.  When I began writing for my family, I may have thought of it as chronicling my experiences and family stories.  But it quickly turned into a process of reinterpretation, particularly as I tried to respect the perspectives, including conflicting perspectives, of different family members.  And the writing process also caused me to reflect more deeply about the vital strands and forces of my life, especially my family life, and how these have contributed to the critical decisions I have made and directions I have taken.

Let me change the subject.  Multiracial and culturally mixed families are much more common now than while you were growing up.  Do you think it’s still just as difficult for a child to negotiate a mixed cultural background?

I hope not.  I think not.  My mixed-identity experience of growing up was set in a particular time and place: racially-segregated, religiously-divided, class conscious early post-World War II Kansas City, Missouri.

I’ve interacted with lots of young people, including high school students, who have seen “A Conversation with Alana.”  Those interactions have made it clear to me that having a mixed background can still involve special challenges.  However, America today is much more open to “mixed” people.

Do you believe there is something to be gained from occupying the in-between, nuanced space between two cultures?

Growing up in categorically-rigid Kansas City, I detested being of mixed background because fitting in was so important and I couldn’t.  Looking back, I wouldn’t trade that experience.  I think it has helped me develop a natural multiple-perspective way of viewing the world and an edge in understanding the nuances of cross-cultural contact.  Beyond that, now I actually enjoy being marginal.

Is your memoir posing an answer to the dilemma of multiple identities? 

Not really.  At least I didn’t consciously try to provide answers to complex social issues.  Maybe Rose Hill celebrates personal multiplicity, although I didn’t set out to do that.  I just wanted to tell an engaging story about what, in retrospect, may have been a rather unique life, although I didn’t think of it that way as I lived it or even when I began writing it.

If Rose Hill helps people on their own personal journeys, fine.  If it helps them unravel their own personal mysteries, great.  If it contributes to better intergroup understanding, particularly about intermarriage and its ramifications, wonderful.  If it inspires people to write their own stories so they can pass them on to their families, terrific.  But most of all, I want people to enjoy the experience of accompanying me on my tortuous journey of family, society, mystery, conflicting memoires, and, yes, redemption.