Updated: Mar 13
By Andreina Rodriguez
It’s never been an issue for adults to pick up books written for young adults and be able to get just as much out of them as they would any other book. Jasminne Mendez continues to prove this with her latest memoir, Islands Apart: Becoming Dominican American.
Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Islands Apart focuses on the poet and author's early childhood and serves as a companion to Island of Dreams and Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e, her previous books based on her later years.
The book, out on Sept. 15 by Arte Público Press, begins with a compelling lyrical essay featuring the contrasting voices between Mendez’s birth story and Mendez herself. The author sets the book's tone by demonstrating her experiences as an adolescent who felt out of place because of her background.
As a military child, Mendez endured living in the South as a Black Dominican girl — a rare demographic in the predominantly white southern areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Texas, and Tennessee. Mendez rarely came across other people who looked like her or who shared the same experiences. We’re taken on a journey of young Mendez, who opens up about her firsts as a young child from her first crush, first friend, and first loss.
While it’s written from the lens of young Jasminne, Islands Apart sparks memories and realizations of childhood experiences relatable to many Dominicans. As the older sibling, Mendez’s mother made her responsible for picking up most of the chores in the house.
“At eleven years old as the eldest daughter, I was being raised to become the perfect housewife and mother.”
But unlike her mother, Mendez found more value in writing and reading than mopping the floors and cooking arroz con habichuelas. This would be one of the many cases in which Mendez would find herself islands apart from those around her.
When going through puberty, Mendez also unpacks the lack of communication and strict rules, such as prohibiting shaving, which translates to what I realize now as a way of grieving the growth of their children. As an adult reading this book, Islands Apart helped me give space to my younger self and the experiences I endured but was never given the opportunity or could ever articulate.
Mendez spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about excavating memories for her new book, and some of the inspiration behind it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of Islands Apart! What does this book mean to you?
To me it's just another layer of all the memories that I've written. I wrote Island of Dreams back in 2012 and then I wrote Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e, which came out in 2018. I pretty much wrote all three at the same time, and I didn't realize that they were going to be separate projects. Originally, Islands Apart was the first few chapters of Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e, and my publisher and editor suggested making it its own thing and adding some more essays to make it cohesive.
For me, this collection of essays is really about that time in my life when I was eight or seven years old through 13, so right before puberty or right when I hit puberty.
It’s the book that I think I needed at that age. You know that middle-grade age when you're trying to figure out who you are and you're always butting heads with your mom. You're trying to be independent, but she still sees you as a little girl. There’s also the layer of being this Black Dominican girl in the South and not having any other peers around me that share that experience, aside from my siblings. It wasn't something that I think we knew how to articulate at the time.
Was there ever a time during the book writing process when you felt you wanted to interrupt her thought process? Especially in your piece that tackles a bit about the divide between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I would find myself wanting to interject, so I was wondering if you also felt that way.
I didn't necessarily want to embed my own adult perception into the book. There definitely are moments of reflection, even in that particular piece where I'm listening and absorbing and trying to make sense and knowing in my brain ‘This is wrong,’ but not being able to articulate why. That was the struggle I wanted to portray in the book. Obviously, now I know why, and I know the history of the island. I've done the work to try to dismantle all of this within myself, and even in my own family. But I also wanted to hold space, especially in that particular piece, and a few others for non-judgmental grace, if you will, in the sense of, we know, I know, adult me knows that that thinking is wrong.
In memoir writing, you have to excavate and reflect on moments of your life that are not pretty. What was it like for you to unearth some of these memories?
I think some of them were harder than others. That piece about my aunt and the stillborn baby was definitely difficult and harrowing and very challenging, because I still vividly remember the Polaroid picture of my stillborn baby cousin, Nicholas. Now as a mother, too, it's even more gripping to me to think about what she went through.
I've always said the real writing is in revision, and in revising. That's when you find what is anchoring these pieces down. What is at the heart of it? What am I really trying to say? In so many of these pieces, I would have to stop halfway because I'm crying or having these really emotional responses after I'm done writing. Or I would revise one day and then be totally drained and moody for like a week. It wasn't until I started really paying attention to that that I realized it's the writing that's causing these very emotional responses, and learning how to take care of myself in the process.
You mentioned picking pieces of the story apart. I noticed that the book is a little short. Did you set out to kind of be selective about your youth memories? Can you tell us about how you decided what to focus on?
In full transparency, it was supposed to be a bilingual book. It was supposed to be where you were able to flip it and see the other side in Spanish. It was going to be longer than what it is, but I say it’s like a chapbook essay kind of thing. It's a much shorter read for sure than my other books, but I was thinking very specifically about firsts in a lot of ways – like first crush, first friend. I remember being really sick with the chicken pox was one of my first memories,. All of these firsts that we encounter in our youth can be very formative. Those were the things that I focused on in this collection.
I always say that it is short but Sandra Cisneros has House on Mango Street, which is super famous. A good book doesn’t have to be long.
Were there any books or stories that inspired you to write Islands Apart?
One of the main ones that really pushed me in this direction was bell hooks’ Bone Black Memories of My Girlhood because it’s her young adult story, but it’s also told through short essays. That’s what I was going for. I wanted things that were shorter and packed a punch. Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing was also really formative and inspiring for me to go in this route. One that I read later, probably during revisions, was Jacqueline Woodson's memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, which was also one that really stood out for me when thinking about the stories that I wanted to tell.
From the interviews you’ve done for Night-Blooming Jasmin(ne), you bring up the topic of grieving the loss of who you were, which I also noticed as a theme in Islands Apart. While you grieve, your family also grieves in their own way. Can you talk about that?
I think that there's this false notion in society that you have one identity, or one purpose, or one trajectory in life, and then you're expected to follow that your whole life. Or if you're one way as a teen, or as a young adult, or as a kid, then you're always going to be that way. I think I personally fit into that a lot. I would say I'm going to do theater, and I'm going to do this, and I'm going to be a teacher. Every time I said I was going to do X thing and that was going to be my thing, there's always been something that disrupts that.
There's some moment where you realize, ‘Oh, the world isn't actually what I thought it was.’ There's different moments of that. I think there's a grieving and a loss that we have to go through for that. When you're a kid, unless you have an adult or an older sibling or person to help tell you what's happening, you don't really understand. You don't understand that you're grieving a loss.
I don't think we talk about these sort of intangible losses as much as we talk about the loss of a parent, a family member, a physical person, or even the loss of a job ora house –hese physical concrete things that we feel like we can see and touch and understand. And so when they're no longer there, we grieve them. So much of my grieving and my losses have been these intangible things, whether it's girlhood coming to an end and finally coming into womanhood, regardless of how much I wanted it.
You mentioned in the book that living in Tennessee and how, unlike most Dominican immigrants, they didn’t move to New York. Why was the Dominican population in Tennessee so prominent?
It wasn't even something I thought about until much later in life and being here now in Texas. I did always feel kind of othered in the Dominican community. They've all kind of spread out for the most part, but I did have a lot of family that lived in New York, cousins that lived in Brooklyn. We visit them every once every couple of years, for Christmases and in the summers and things like that. Being a Dominican not in New York was kind of a strange thing. I didn't fully realize it until much older that most of the places that I lived in were in the South.
That came with a certain set of expectations and sort of understanding because there weren't many Dominicans or even Afro-Latin people in the South during the early-mid 90s and a little bit of the late 90s. We got to Texas in ‘98. Most of you know my childhood in the ’90s was in the South, and the few Dominicans there mostly came from military families. The Puerto Rican families and Cuban families that were there were those folks we hung out with and were in community with because of the military.
What do you hope readers take away from your memoir?
I hope that someone can feel seen through the story, that their own experiences are reflected in this experience so that they feel less alone in their own journey towards young womanhood, young adulthood, young personhood, or however they identify. I also think that it's one of the many reasons for me telling any of these stories, especially the most personal ones. It’s to show that to be Black and Latina, to be Afro Dominican, to be Afro Latina, there is not one way to be to have this identity, to live in this world, to move in this world. It's important that we see the multiple ways in which we exist in America, in this world, the society, and in the diaspora.
About the Author:
Jasminne Mendez is a Dominican-American poet, playwright, translator and award winning author of several books for children and adults. She is the author of two hybrid memoirs, Island of Dreams (Floricanto Press) and Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poetry (Arte Público Press), and a YA memoir, Islands Apart: Becoming Dominican American (Arte Público Press). Her debut poetry collection, City Without Altar, was a finalist for the Noemi Press Book Award for Poetry. Her debut middle grade book Anina del Mar Jumps In (Dial) is a novel-in-verse about a young girl diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis and is set to release in 2023. Her debut picture book Josefina’s Habichuelas (Arte Público Press), was released last year.
Andreina Rodriguez is a journalist from Queens, New York. Her work appears on all 12 NBC local websites, Refinery29, CNBC, Latino Rebels, The Mujerista, #WeAllGrow Latina, and Modern Brown Girl.
You can follow her on Twitter @andreina_rodrgz and follow her work through andreinarodriguez.com