Albert Samaha, CONCEPCION

Albert Samaha, CONCEPCION

“To me, this book, in a lot of ways, the core intellectual arc of the book is this journey of me figuring out what it means to be American.” Zibby is joined by investigative journalist and editor at BuzzFeed News Albert Samaha to talk about his new memoir, Concepcion, which is a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Albert and Zibby talk about the ways in which the shape of the narrative changed over the five years it took to write it, which moments in recent history have had the greatest effect on Albert’s family, and how he determined which memories made it into the book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Albert. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes.

Albert Samaha: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: I have to say, I learned so much about — you have so much history in here not just about your culture’s immigration, but really, America itself and how our country has come to be. I love how you framed the whole thing up until the American flag outside your home perhaps being stolen, but really, it wasn’t stolen, and the whole trajectory of almost the downfall of American, to be honest, the dashed dreams and what’s become of America today. I feel like your family’s story kind of illustrates this rise and fall, which is a huge goal in a book. Tell me about your impetus for the book, your idea for writing this book, and if the changing tides, so to speak, were part of why you wanted to get this down.

Albert: Absolutely so. At first, subconsciously until it eventually emerged on my mind what the book could be about. It was maybe around 2016, was when the idea struck me that I wanted to write a story about my family. By that point, I knew a lot of the mythology of my family. I knew the story of my Grandauntie Caridad being an underground spy in World War II. I knew about my granduncle who was a painter and a congressperson. I knew the general idea that my family had come from prominence in the Philippines. By 2016, we’re talking almost a decade into the recession or after the crash. I had seen my elders were struggling financially, my mom one of them. Around that time, I was reaching the age that many of them were when they came to the States. I think the convergence of those two things, me being more interested in wondering what it was like for them at that stage of their lives while also seeing that the final outcome of the long-term outcome of them coming here, sacrificing what they left behind in Philippines was them still struggling, it raised all these questions in my mind.

My natural instinct as a writer is, when there are questions that trouble me, I need to process it by writing about it, if nothing else, for myself. I think the arc of American history was just implicit in that personal, familial arc of them rising and falling along the with tides of America. The impetus wasn’t necessarily to show the rise and fall of this empire. I think that was something that came along later. I just knew it was going to be a book about my family. The themes, the big-picture ideas, none of that was clear to me. That’s something that definitely evolved over time. If you go back and you read the initial book proposal I had back in 2017, 2018, or whatever, a lot of the concepts that ended up in the book weren’t there yet. I think that’s such a testament to just the process of working on a book project over five years. Your mind’s going to evolve. Your ideas are going to evolve. A lot of the questions you start off with will lead to answers you didn’t necessarily plan for. I think that’s kind of the fun part of this project for me.

Zibby: You know what would be fun? If there was some sort of a writerly contest where you took the names and titles off of book proposals to see if you could even figure out which book came out of the proposal. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Albert: I would love that.

Zibby: Right? These are the nerdy things I think are fun. It’s true, you never know where your book is going to go. I think you are joined by many, many people in using writing as a tool to kind of figure out the noise in your head and how to process everything. I feel kind of bad for people who don’t do that because I’m like, how do they process everything?

Albert: I know. It’s so true because it really is like, that process of not wanting the stuff to be in vain is part of it for me. If I see something bad happening — I remember it was years ago, me and a buddy of mine went out and had a night where we drank too much. It was just a mess. I woke up feeling really, really bad. I had lost my watch. It was just a really, really tough morning, emotionally and psychologically. I just wrote a short story about it, a fictionalized short story about it. I’m like, at least my lost watch will not be in vain. At least, that troubling night won’t be in vain. I’ll have a small piece of art about it.

Zibby: Totally. I know. I’m getting reading glasses. It’s been a whole thing because I’ve always had perfect vision. In the back of my head, I’m just storing away these little tidbits. I’m like, well, soon, I’m going to write a whole thing about what it’s like to be middle-aged and get reading glasses. Not that anybody really cares, but other middle-aged people getting reading glasses might care. Anyway, the book talks a lot about your identity and your identity growing up and being from the Philippines, from your family’s history in the Philippines, and even talking to your cousin and him saying at one point, “We had maids. We had it good. What are we doing here?” and then your growing up in America and staking this claim out for yourself. At one point in the book you said your mother was trying really hard to raise you almost to be white. Yet you, at that time, actually wanted to be black because of all the cultural role models and things that were going in. Then your main identity ended up being found through football. As a family of football-loving people, I’m very interested in that element too. That, of course, is the most American thing you can hang your hat on, football. Tell me a little bit about that, especially that time of your life.

Albert: That age growing up for any person, it’s many times about finding identity, especially as you get to that prepubescent adolescent stage. In those years, I was very conscious of the process of figuring out, who am I? What kind of style do I have? Very conscious to the effect that you almost overcompensate. You want to prove to the world you’re this type of person. It was one of those things that I would always look back at and sort of cringe at my lack of understanding of, what does it mean to be a person who was neither white nor black in America? Where do I fit in? Those questions were already sort of percolating at the time. One of the things I enjoyed about this process is that these memories that, in my mind, I cringed at make for really good material afterwards. It’s part of that thing, too, of, at least it’s not in vain. Also, throughout the book, if there’s someone to be poked fun at, I hope it’s me as the narrator. One purpose I hope to serve as a narrator is to serve as a proxy for ideas I hope to undermine. Better to undermine myself than to undermine others because I have an insight into why I felt this way and can explore it. It ended up being the section of the book I think I enjoyed writing the most, going back to those particular years where I did have a lot of memories that I thought about often but had never really reflected on and mined.

So much of this book process was either going back in deep history, which were based on interviews, or going back to recent history, which was already baked into my mind as stuff I knew I was going to write. There was this sweet spot of years of childhood that I was very familiar but had never really reflected on. That was part of it. I think it sort of goes to your first question of how this is a book that, it’s more about the history of America than about the history of Philippines. I think that’s very much a product of a lot of the ideas that developed in terms of the identity lane. When I initially came into the book, the elevator pitch or whatever was the idea that this is a book about immigrants. What I realized midway through writing it is that it’s not a book about immigrants. It’s a book about the children of immigrants. They’re really the core voice. The core frame of reference is from the children of immigrants. That’s, to me, what I hoped would make the book more unique. As common as immigrant narratives are in America, the land of immigrants, those are far more often the stories of those who are left to carry on that legacy. That’s when I realized, oh, this book actually is as much about me, if not more about me, than it is about the other characters even though those characters may have more face time or more scene time than me as a character in many chapters. The frame of reference is, what is it like to look back on that and to question that and to develop, what does it mean to be American? Me as an American, it had to be an American book that’s what I know best. I can’t tell a story about the history of the Philippines and what it means to be Filipino because that’s not my experience. That’s not the frame of reference that I have. To me, this book, in a lot of ways, the core intellectual arc of the book is this journey of me figuring out what it means to be American.

Zibby: I loved how you tied it up at the end with your half-sisters coming from Beirut and them thinking the TikTok influencers are the coolest things ever and what they’re wearing and how there is still something so magnetic or — there is a leadership element, still, to America that hopefully will come back or something, even in popular culture if nothing else, which is great. You said something funny about the football and even learning how to manage your own emotions. I also really enjoyed this part because I was trying to get to know you as the writer and everything. You said, “Before games, I delivered speeches about shocking the world. At halftime, I’d slam my helmet into lockers, and expletive-filled tantrums denigrating our efforts. After each loss, I sobbed in the locker room, face buried in my gloved hands with a teammate or two to share in the anguish. Our poor girlfriends would be waiting in the parking lot an hour after the game’s conclusion asking anyone exiting the locker room, ‘Are they still in there crying?'”

Albert: That’s another example of those cringeworthy moments that make for great material. If I didn’t have a book to put that in, it would just kind of linger in my head. I wanted the book to be filled with the sort of stories that I just tell my friends. I wanted the book to sound like you were just sitting next to me at a café and asking me what high school was like. That’s one of the stories I always tell. I do think one of the challenges, for me, of memoir writing is that — when I came into it, I had this list of, here are these vivid, scenic memories that surely are going to be part of the book. I started to realize that a lot of these memories that I held very vividly in my mind did not necessarily have significant narrative impact on the course of events in the book or on my life and that sometimes the inflection point at a certain stage was not this vivid memory of this happening at lunchtime. Actually, some other less-vivid memory, some vague, more abstract memory was the day things actually changed. Part of this process was figuring out which — as a journalist, the challenge is usually getting enough information to tell the story. Here, it’s this overflow of information. It’s like a block of marble that you have to chisel the figure out of. That, to me, was the most challenging part, these scenes or anecdotes I thought were hilarious or I thought were interesting, vivid scenes I was excited to write but had absolutely no impact on the course of my life or the course of anyone else. It’s like, oh, that shouldn’t be part of the book then. Separating memories that were vivid from memories that were actually meaningful to the story was a really interesting process that required a lot of reflection. I needed all those years to have to process all that.

Zibby: I feel like that’s one of those things that you need to see as you’re writing. Where is it even going? To your point at the beginning, maybe these scenes do have a purpose, but if you end up trying to prove a different point with the book — I feel like one of your underlying points was that you have this sense of guilt about your mom, honestly, and where she has ended up in life. Here you are. She’s come over. She gave up all this privilege that she had in the Philippines to give you this life. You describe your life. You have become this huge success and all the rest and have lived out the dream, the fantasy. You followed all the steps and everything. Yet now it’s the end of her life, or towards the end of her life. I shouldn’t say that, but as we all are getting older. There’s no clear path to, really, financial security in the country. I was heartbroken when you talked about how she finally got this job in February of 2020 and then, of course, was furloughed in March. I was like, oh, my gosh, she just cannot get a break. It just felt almost helpless. I could feel you trying to sort out how to deal with that. How do you as the son deal with that? How do you help? You’re obviously doing things like coming to her rescue and making sure she’s not scammed by these internet creeps and things like that. That was a hilarious scene, by the way, with the two of you laughing and everything. I could feel you being like, what am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to do? Is that sort of how you’re feeling about it now? Have you come to any conclusions?

Albert: Basically, no, not really. So many aspects of that are just unresolved. One thing that sort of frayed my thinking on both how to write those and how to think about and process those aspects was, in my work as a reporter, knowing how commonplace the arc of my mom’s story in America is. Speaking to people almost, literally, every day who describe similar, oftentimes much worse, situations financially but rooted in this idea of — so much of it stems from the crash in ’08. It’s bigger than that. There are so many other forces. There’s larger economic trajectories in the country. Much like the COVID, the crash in ’08 accelerated those things and exposed those things. For people without much margin for error, that dissolved the markets. This arc of, the crash hit and things are bad, everyone kind of acknowledges that. It’s like, okay, this horrible catastrophe has happened. We’re all knocked off our feet. In the years since, it’s been this rebuilding process. From that ground-zero point of the crash, everyone’s been trying to rebuild and figure things out. Then now more than a decade later, a lot of folks are still sort of in that process and have never fully made themselves whole again. Eventually, at some point within those twelve years, thirteen years, you realize that what seemed to be a temporary setback is actually a new normal and what seemed to be a temporary struggle is indefinite and that there is no, necessarily, making it all back.

It’s not as simple as it was then. A lot of the elements and one of the things I tried to get at in the book is this question of, all that money we made in the two-thousands, was that the normal state of things and then this was just a blip that we have to revert back to the normal state of things, or was that the blip? Were those years of the housing bubble and inflated market and money out of thin air and all that money coming in, us being able to afford the bends, was that actually the exceptional moment and everything else is just the normal thing? It’s impossible to see that at the time. For me, processing it has been this — the book’s part of processing it. One of the lines early in the book that gets at that is realizing that, yeah, it’s no longer — I think the line was, their struggles were no longer a toll to pay on the road to easier days, but a permanent struggle, so that idea of the mindsets shifting from, this is just a temporary thing that we’re going to get over soon, to, oh, no, this is just how things are, and the importance of that recognition because you make different decisions when you recognize that a moment is indefinite as opposed to temporary. You make more urgent decisions. That’s raised my urgency of, oh, we need to adjust our financial partnership in a way that is not just about building up debt and knowing that a windfall will come. We have to create a stable system. I think that the difficulty of finding that stability first starts with having to recognize that it is indefinite and there is no help around the corner.

Zibby: Interesting. The real question is, do people comment on your dimples all the time? I also have dimples. People are always commenting on it. I feel like there should be more attention to people who have dimples. Maybe there’s some personality traits or maybe there’s some commonality. I don’t know. Thoughts on dimples?

Albert: They do all the time. It’s the first thing. I do think there’s similar personality traits that are not necessarily tied to genetics but tied to growing up with the affirmation of people always telling you how nice your dimples are. We might just be more positive, fun-loving people because we feel special. We feel kind of empowered. I have no doubt that my life is at least fifteen to twenty-five percent easier just from the subconscious biases that people give me from having the dimples.

Zibby: Wow, that is so interesting. Oh, my gosh, I never thought about that.

Albert: I’ll take what I can get. We all need our edge.

Zibby: Yeah, we all need our edge. #Dimples. Love it. Are you a football fan? Do you like to watch football still, or no?

Albert: I am. I do. Love football. I watch it with a lot more of the clear-eyed guilt than I did before, as maybe a lot of us do. There was a point where I realized that it’s just a part of my life. Even when I read that Uber pays its drivers poorly, I’ll want to report on it. I feel bad about this, but I still got to take this Uber. ordering Amazon stuff, I feel the same way about football. Life is too short to fight every battle. I hope to advocate that players get health care funds and people have more awareness about the fact that the people that make millions of dollars in the NFL, we’re talking millions of dollars stretched over three years as their entire earnings potential. Football is a disposable labor force in ways much more extreme than any other sport. The average literal lifespan and career lifespan is shorter. There’s more players. It’s a machine. It’s a warehouse. I acknowledge all that to myself to mitigate the guilt, at least, so that by the time divisional weekend starts, I’ve already processed, yeah, this is fucked up. This is fucked up. Anyway, let my pop on my television and enjoy two days straight of football. So yeah, I like to watch. It’s just always going to be a part of me.

I’m sure there are going to be very real historical comparisons with Roman gladiators. Obviously, many differences in many ways — they weren’t paid; they were slaves and stuff like that — but in that way that when we think back to the Roman times, that gladiators was just a part of it and a part of it that we all now agree was like, what a horrible thing that they had. Also, we don’t think of savages for that. We don’t think of them as brutes for participating in that entertainment. We’re like, well, that was what they did back then. I think it’ll be sort of similar now. We know it’s kind of messed up. We hope that things get better in terms of how players are treated. I still don’t believe that the rules changes will make a significant difference in health and safety because I think it’s the subconcussive hits that are long term. To me, the most important thing is acknowledging that. Let’s not sit here and pretend a couple of rule changes are going to drastically change the long-term health implications. Let’s admit to ourself, this is a brutal sport that will really mess people up. As long as they have the informed consent and they’re making an active choice, they know what they’re getting into, and as long as the NFL is providing them with proper health care and medical treatment, I can at least feel okay knowing that. I still don’t know if that’s fully the case, so I don’t know if I can feel okay about that. To answer your question, yes, I still watch football. I’m a Niner fan, so I’m feeling good these days.

Zibby: I was wondering who you were rooting for. I shouldn’t even say this. I was going to say my son changes midway through the game. Whoever’s winning, he’s like, now I’m a this fan.

Albert: I was like that as a kid. I think that’s great. I think that’s a great way to develop a positive emotional relationship with sports.

Zibby: That’s a nice way to say that.

Albert: I, early on, became a Bay Area sports fan. There were some really difficult years like when the Warriors were really bad and the Giants had such playoff losses. I would sometimes just hop on — I’m like, you know what? I don’t feel like being a Warrior fan right now. Let me watch the Kings and Chris Webber. I was able to develop some positive memories. Especially if your family has teams that are struggling, it’s a useful thing to hold them over in the meantime.

Zibby: I’m sure you’re working on another book. I’m curious what you are doing after this book. Maybe there’s a football-themed book in your future too. I would be interested in the impact of the red zone on the trajectory of how people watch and consume football and attention span and fandom. There’s probably a book like this, but I feel like you could write that.

Albert: I think so. I’ll always be attracted to football. I’ll always be interested in football. Part of me also feels like I’m worried about being too connected to football. My first book was about football. I followed this youth football team in Brownsville, Brooklyn, but it was very focused on that community. It wasn’t about NFL stuff, the bigger-picture stuff you were talking about. Then the second book, I had that whole chapter about football. I played college football. That’s usually mentioned in reviews and stuff. A small part of me is like, oh, man, if I write too much about football —

Zibby: — Oh, you’re over it?

Albert: I’m not over it. I don’t want to be shoehorned as, oh, that’s the football guy.

Zibby: I didn’t even think that was a risk. Sorry. I didn’t even think that was on the horizon as a risk. Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City. I know, but that’s not exactly what I meant. Okay, whatever.

Albert: I still enjoy it. It’s probably a reflection of my insecurities of coming up as knowing I had a football background and always being worried people will only think I care about sports. I came up as a sportswriter, so I’ve always been insecure about — I’m interested in the NFL and the business of it. I would love to do one of those “follow a team for a year” books like if you can get access. It’s somewhere on the horizon. I don’t know if it would be the next one because of those insecurities, but I think at some point once I have enough books under my belt so it’s like, well, he only has two books out about football.

Zibby: Okay, fine. I get it. Honestly, I think anybody looking at this on the shelf would not be like, oh, just another sportswriter writing another sports book. It’s this very literary, immigrant, reported — anyway, whatever. What is next for you? What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Albert: I don’t know what’s next. I think about it a lot. I have vague ideas for the next project that I’m working on, jotting ideas down. I’m starting to gather some early string. I wanted to give myself more time to process and transition this time around than the first time around. I started this book a year before the first book came out. That was fine, but I feel like I’ve been working two jobs for like eight years. One of my goals has been to slow down a little bit to take a step back, read broadly, explore some curiosities, develop my inner child once more, not just read about interests that I haven’t thought about in a while, and come from a fresh place. I want the next book to be from a different writer, basically, with a different set of knowledge, interests. I don’t know yet. I definitely know I want it to be different than the first two books, whatever that means. I want it to feel different, a different texture.

In terms of advice for anyone working on a book, I really do believe that the more time you can put into it, the better it will be. I mean that in a very linear sense, or into infinity. If you spend a hundred years on a book, it would be better than if you’d spent fifty years, and so on. It’s all that point of diminishing returns. You can’t, obviously, practically, spend twenty years on a book because, one, you got to get paid for it. Two, you’re probably going to be sick of it by then. I don’t think I could imagine spending less than five years on a book, or four years. As we talked about earlier, so many of the ideas just need time to manifest and process. Those nights you’re lying in bed thinking about the project or when — for me, a lot of the ideas just chisel away at them. It’s not that there’s these major breakthroughs that just come while you’re writing. It comes when I’m standing in the shower just thinking about some chapter and how to connect some threads together. They don’t happen every time I think about it in the shower, but it’s like chipping away at a wall knowing that eventually — you don’t know when you’ll get to the end of the wall, but you’ll eventually break through. You sort of have to earn the breakthroughs. It’s about knowing that they’re not always going to come. I always tell reporters how so much of reporting is failure. You call a hundred people, ninety-five of them are going to not talk to you, not respond, or hang up in your face. You just have to know you have to make the hundred calls for the five calls. If you need five calls, you have to make a hundred calls. You have to know that coming in.

I think it’s like that writing a book. If you want the ideas to develop, you have to give them time. You have to do things that inspire the ideas. Go to museums. It’s not just the writing of sitting down and typing and doing interviews and researching. It really does require a lot of thought. The people I often feel bad for are the seemingly fortunate people that — you write a big magazine article. Publisher hits you up. Oh, this is great. Let’s turn this into a book. You have eighteen months. Naturally, that process will be a process of just expanding the story you already have because you only have eighteen months to develop it. To create a whole new story, a brand-new story requires more time. My top advice is, give yourself as much time as you can, whether that’s working the job you need to work to pay the bills so that you can spend nights working on the book or chipping away, double-dipping, if you’re a journalist, with some of the projects you’re working on for your day job. I didn’t go on book leave for my first book. Then for the second book, I probably ordered six weeks of book leave. For me, it was like, yeah, I couldn’t have done that in a year. I had to stretch it out. I think it worked out fine in terms of developing the idea. That’s what I’d say. The more time you can buy yourself, the easier, the more fulfilling I think it’ll be.

Zibby: Awesome. Amazing. Thank you, Albert, for coming on. I will be thinking of you and your mom. I’m hoping she’s okay. All of your story, it just really sunk in and was very powerful. I’m really glad I got to read about your life. Thank you.

Albert: Thanks so much for having me. A pleasure. Great chatting.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Albert: Thank you. You too. Peace.

Albert Samaha, CONCEPCION

CONCEPCION by Albert Samaha

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