Quiara Alegría Hudes, MY BROKEN LANGUAGE

Quiara Alegría Hudes, MY BROKEN LANGUAGE

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes joins Zibby to discuss her debut memoir, My Broken Language, which tells both the story of how she became an artist and a woman in the world. Quiara shares the biggest differences between her home life growing up and the culture that existed when she arrived at Yale, how music has shaped her life, and what the continued popularity of her play In the Heights has been like.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Quiara. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss My Broken Language: A Memoir.

Quiara Alegría Hudes: Thank you. So happy to be here.

Zibby: This book, I know I was just saying this, but is so good. It’s so beautiful. You’re such a great writer, obviously. You won the Pulitzer Prize for your play. You’re obviously a rockstar. I’m a memoir fiend. I love memoir. It’s my favorite genre. I read a million of them. It was so good. Just had to say that.

Quiara: Thank you. My inner child is smiling. When I was a little kid and people asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? I said I wanted to be a rockstar, so now I feel that it has come true thanks to you.

Zibby: There you go. That’s awesome. Now I feel like I have a peek inside of you as a young girl and your whole life, so that means even more. Would you mind just telling listeners, what inspired you to write this memoir? Why now?

Quiara: It’s kind of the two sides of one coin of my family experiences as I became an artist. In some ways, the book is my becoming an artist. In other ways, it’s me coming into my own as a woman in my family. The thing about being a woman in my family was bearing witness and having proximity to so much struggle and hardship. It was very hard times. The Puerto Rican community in Philly took a lot of hits in the eighties and nineties, for sure. I wanted to bear witness to that. I wanted, honestly, even before bearing witness, just to make sense of that. What did all of that mean for me as a kid? The flip side of the coin is, the family setting was also a sight of tremendous exuberance, joy, tenderness, healing, humor. I think that vivaciousness, that lifeforce, that juice really informed the pain and vice versa. I’m still so compelled by the coexistence of both of those things in my family growing up.

Zibby: You described it so beautifully, too, when you were talking about how in your family, it wasn’t always words. It was actions like the banging of the pots. Wait, I have to find — I think I dogeared this page. Oh, yeah, here it is. “Language was not what connected us as a family. A dinner table ritual where people gather to discuss news of the day was not at the heart of how we communicated. Bodies were the mother tongue at Abuela’s, with Spanish second and English third. Dancing and ass-slapping, palmfuls of rice, ponytail-pulling and wound-dressing, banging a pot to the clave beat. Hands didn’t get lost in translation. Hips bridged gaps where words failed.” I loved that.

Quiara: It’s like, the harder it got, the harder we partied and the harder we celebrated. We did that with our bodies. Actually, I was quite shocked, I got to get — later in the book, you meet a character called the boy. Spoiler alert, we stayed together. He’s now my husband and the father of my children. I was seventeen when I met him. This isn’t in the book, but I would go to his house, and his family would sit down and have dinner at the same time and have conversation. This was a totally new experience. I was like, what is happening? It was a free-for-all at Abuela’s house. There was always dancing. There was always eating, cooking, usually some sort of healing going on because someone was always sick, babysitting. That all happened simultaneously when it naturally occurred.

Zibby: Then you contrast that with Yale. By the way, we were there at the same time. I graduated in 1998.

Quiara: Oh, my gosh.

Zibby: I was in Davenport, but I lived off campus half the time. When you were talking about Ashley’s Ice Cream and the halls of the Sterling, I was like, oh, my gosh, we were — Sprague Hall, all the places, it was crazy, a little flashback. Anyway, how you contrasted what that traditional, old-school beauty, intimidating atmosphere was like for you coming — and then even saying about Gabi, why did you get that and she does not get that, necessarily? Why did you get that in your family? Talk to me a little bit about that. Yale feels like a very central — maybe it was my own bias, but a central piece of your coming of age, so to speak.

Quiara: At Yale, I read for the first time, a very important play for me just in my life and in my heart, which was For Colored Girls by Ntozake Shange. In the final pages of that play she talks about a laying on of hands as this cathartic healing act. Of course, I was familiar with that phrase because it’s kind of a well-known Biblical phrase. To hear it spoken about within a woman’s space, it gave me language to something I had known all my life, which was, we were very physical with each other. Our bodies in our family, which is, in my experience, quite typical in Puerto Rican families, ran the gamut from very light skin like mine to darkest, darkest skin, cousins of mine or my aunts. Some of us have straight, silky hair like some of my younger cousins. My tías have afros. My mom had an afro. Body shape, we had very skinny. We had very, very what would be called obese or fat. I didn’t use the word fat for a long time because it was such a slur. Now it’s starting to come back. Hell no, I’m going to call myself that. I’m going to claim that word. I’m going to make it mine. All of these women were wildly confident, possibly overconfident. It was amazing to see. When I was middle school, that’s when it was heroin chic. It was the Calvin Klein underwear ads. Everyone was stick thin and looks emaciated. Here was this very robust, cellulite-ridden, botched tattoo, surgical scar family of mostly women being together sharing space, dancing, healing, laying on of hands. Because that was the environment I was used to, I almost didn’t notice it.

Then going somewhere quite different like Yale, I just could see with relief and with a little more clarity what I had left behind and how special that was. Things like eating disorders and low self-esteem, low body image were new concepts to me. Our bodies were our chapels. They were our scripture. They were our joke book. They were our family history. In some ways, we didn’t have the ability to have those same body issues because our bodies were just much more activated and engaged with each other every day. Those were things I started to notice with a little distance at Yale. That’s just one of the things. The thing that was most front and center going to Yale, being first in my family to go to college was leaving my four-year-old sister behind. She was my baby. She was born when I was thirteen. She presented really differently. She had much darker skin than me. She was a very chubby kid from the beginning. She kind of spoke with this North Philly John accent. She had this whole North Philly thing going on. She was so confident about her body. There’s a chapter where I talk about that she’s — I’m trying to get her dried off after a bath. She finds her naked self in the mirror. She’s four years old. She’s like, “Oh, my god, my body is round as Mother Earth. My body’s round as the moon.” To her, this is miraculous. It made me feel very alive, but I also had a little bit of an uh-oh because I thought, so when does the world begin to tell her that that should be the source of shame, not the source of joy or celebration? These were the things at the front of my mind, or some of them, when I got to Yale.

Zibby: What is she doing now? What’s the PS?

Quiara: Right now, she’s expecting her first child. I’m going to be a titi, which I’m very excited about. She’s a theater producer and a cultural producer in Philadelphia. She started a Latino and a women-of-color theater company in Philadelphia.

Zibby: That’s so great. Amazing. You could really feel how hard it was for you to leave her and go into this new environment. I’m well-acquainted with that separation anxiety. You had a preview for the kid phase. That seemed like a super special relationship. I also really liked your whole conversation on what you believed in and whether or not you believed in God and that whole conversation of, what does it mean to believe? Here, I’ll read a little passage from it because, of course, I’m botching it as I try to talk to you about it. I think it was a little earlier. Oh, also, I loved this whole section on the books that you loved. “A book is its presence and absence.” I keep just quoting because you’re such a great writer. “Who would I be without Ralph Ellison, without the Battle Royale‘s electric brutality, without five words strung together, ‘I am an invisible man’? Who would I be without reading Beloved on the L, North Philly zooming below, if I’d never known Sethe’s back scars?” Then at the end, you said, “And yet as I read with double vision thinking of her often, each book had a strange effect of binding me to her. The more I learned of our divergence, the more I paid it attention.” Just so great.

Quiara: That was me talking about my cousin who was my older cousin and one of my role models growing up, such a funny woman, really a survivor and a fighter. That was on my learning that she could not read and had never learned to read despite graduating the Philadelphia public school system and just realizing some of the gulfs and divides that existed within my family. I had already begun to be a literate teenager. I loved books. I loved writing. That was a shocking thing for me to learn. As I went to Yale, I was very mindful of the fact. Boy, I wish Nuchi, my cousin, I wish she could read this story. I think she would connect to this story. Then, even, you start to second-guess yourself with those sort of thoughts because it’s like, well, who I am to judge? She’s doing just fine. Look at all she’s survived. Look at her fighting spirit. Am I implying that there is deficiency there? That’s the kind of thing that — going to Yale gave me a lot of double vision there.

Zibby: Wow. I loved how your mom, later when you were struggling to figure out what to do after Yale — you were doing a lot of musical stuff. Obviously, you’re a musical genius in addition to everything else. She was like, “But you always wanted to be a writer. What happened to that?” Then now to read that story in the memoir, it’s so satisfying because, of course, here you are writing it, not to mention everything else. That was so neat.

Quiara: For a brief amount of time, I collaborated with an incredible Mexican American songwriter named Lila Downs. One thing she said to me stuck with me all this time, which is, moms just know. That was a moment when it was like, moms just know. She knew who I was with clarity and with much simplicity. I didn’t. She was like, “You’re a writer, Quiara.” She wasn’t telling me what she wanted me to be. She was telling me who she saw I was. I had never conceived of that. Once she said it, I was like, oh, yeah, I am. I had been training all my life to be a musician and put in so many studio hours. I loved music so much. Chopin and Coltrane and Bach, in some ways, were my saviors. They saved me from my adolescent depression. They gave me beauty at times that felt very desolate in my youth. I remember in my mind, my heart just saying, goodbye Coltrane, goodbye Bach, goodbye Chopin. Thank you so much for all you’ve given me, but now I have to go do my thing, which is write.

Zibby: Don’t you feel like there’s still that melody? Even the way you write is still — I think music really informs writing a lot. You can hear it in the rhythm of the words. That sounds so hokey, but it’s true. I feel like you can tell when people have a really musical bent because it becomes more lyrical. If the scale is poetic to mainstream, it’s a more poetic — I don’t know. I haven’t slept. I’m not making any sense, but I know what I mean, so that’s good.

Quiara: It turns out musical training was extremely appropriate training for a writer, too, from just daily habits of self-discipline and being alone, finding creativity in solitude, to also working with sound and structure. All of those things remain super relevant to my writing every day.

Zibby: Now what has it been like — I know you already had won the Pulitzer Prize. With this whole rise of In the Heights, that was the one thing everybody was watching. In some ways, it’s terrible to have a memoir come out during a pandemic, and a book and all of this stuff. I’ve seen so much hard work disrupted. At the same time, we finally have a society where we can all focus on one show at a time, which we haven’t had in a long time. How has this rise to fame and achievement been for you?

Quiara: I have felt somewhat disconnected from it. I’ve had to really consciously find ways to acknowledge it and feel that it’s real and celebrate it because it is during the pandemic. The work takes so much time. The book took me years to write. In the Heights took me decades to write. Lin-Manuel and I, we wrote In the Heights together. We also just released this animated movie called Vivo on Netflix.

Zibby: My kids saw it. I’m so annoyed, they watched with my ex-husband. I’m going to have to make them watch again, which they will not mind at all.

Quiara: It’s very sweet. It’s romantic. That took me years to write. Years and actually decades of my work, all of it opened during the pandemic. It is what it is. I don’t know what to do other than to surrender to that fact and just be grateful for the ability to write. The release into the public is always my least-favorite part because I get self-conscious. I get scared of criticism and all that ego stuff. I have to work hard on all that ego stuff. It’s the making of the thing that is really joyous and exciting for me. It was many good, engaged years.

Zibby: What are you working on now?

Quiara: Some new stuff. It’s wild. You spend so much of your adult — my kids were born and became bigger kids while I was creating this stuff. Now I’m writing new things. Now it feels like a whole new chapter of life. I’m writing an original movie for Warner Bros. I’m developing a thirty-minute sitcom, fun stuff. I have a prison writing project I do that is about people that are behind bars sharing some of their life story with the world. Those are some of the things I’m working on.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I read about that program. That sounds fantastic and a great way to give back and help and everything. Awesome.

Quiara: It’s called Emancipated Stories for any of your listeners that want to check it out, Emancipated Stories.

Zibby: Perfect. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Quiara: I think it’s really important to know why you’re in it, to have that central compass to return to because no work that you write is ever going to be perfect. It’s always going to be flawed. You have to kind of live with those flaws. Some of your best work might not be seen that way from the public. Some of your more mediocre stuff might be really embraced by the public. It can be very confusing and disorienting. Plus, collaborations might fall apart, all that sort of stuff. When you have that compass of, what am I doing and why does it matter? it really helps maintain some kind of emotional stability during it. I think the biggest advice I have is, when you’re starting out, you just got to write a lot. You got to get your stuff out there. Then when you hit a certain point, especially in playwriting — I realize I’m in this conversation with you talking about a book. In playwriting, there is this thing where you need audience feedback. You need a lot of feedback. I feel that it’s not great because young writers can become addicted to feedback. It’s dangerous. You want to respond to your audience and hear what they’re saying and, if possible, improve your work of art accordingly. Glennon Doyle has this quote that really makes me thinks of feedback and rewriting. If you’re asking someone for feedback, you’re asking them for directions to a place they’ve never been. I think you have to be careful with — you should be giving yourself feedback. You should be doing the hard work of figuring out, what are the deficiencies? What are the strengths in this piece? Can I make it better tomorrow?

Zibby: That’s awesome. I have no sense of direction, so I’m hoping that — in terms of writing or anything, I feel like I would definitely need the directions. Amazing. Thank you so much. This has been so fun. I know we’re both very tired, but you couldn’t tell for you. It’s so great to connect and just to even think how our lives have intersected over the years. I’m so excited to see what’s coming next and follow your career and everything. It’s awesome.

Quiara: It’s truly my pleasure. Thanks for reading the book and taking the time.

Zibby: No problem. I loved it. Have a great day. Bye.

Quiara: Bye.

Quiara Alegría Hudes, MY BROKEN LANGUAGE

MY BROKEN LANGUAGE by Quiara Alegría Hudes

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