Interview with Suzanne Hermanoczki

Growing up, the country was an idea in my head, but not the one I knew when I went there. It was like sort of looking at a city in a strange new way, yet understanding things such as the way people talk, act and behave.

Belonging, memory and nostalgia are three subjects present in Hermanoczki’s writing. In her story ‘Mi casa (no) es su casa // Writing about my house in someone else’s home,’ published in Puentes Review 2, she explores some of this issues and tells us about her time in Hong Kong and how she started writing.

Through her essays, Hermanoczki’s also explores issues of representation, a theme close to her heart.

Most recently, she won the 2022 AAWP/Westerly Magazine Life Writing Prize with her essay ‘Doors’.

We sat we Suzanne on a windy Melbourne day to talk about her work, representation and her future projects.

Family plays an important role in your writing. What’s your family’s migration story?

That’s a long and complicated story, but I’ll start with my dad because he leads onto my mum, which then leads to Australia.

My dad escaped the failed Hungarian Revolution in 1956. It started off similar to what’s happening in the Ukraine these days, with Soviet troops invading the country. My dad was 16, when he decided to escape across the border to Austria. He didn’t tell his brothers or family.

Eventually while in a refugee camp, he got sponsored by an older sister who was in Argentina. When he arrived in Buenos Aires, he found a community of Hungarians already there. Dad lived in Buenos Aires for about ten maybe twelve years, and that’s where he met my mum.

In the 1960s, perhaps because of their previous experience, some Hungarians felt Argentina politically wasn’t going okay, and were the first ones to leave. My parents came to Australia in the late 1960s. They arrived first in Sydney but didn’t like it.

Then someone told them there was work in Brisbane, so they moved.

My childhood we had a lot of Hungarian friends who’d gone to Argentina: there were Spanish speaking Hungarians, other Argentinos, Chilenos, Uruguayos, good friends from Peru and later El Salvador (in the 1980s) and Colombia who spent a lot of time with us.

You grew up with three languages at home (Spanish, English and Hungarian) each carrying a specific weight. Did the constant use of these languages influence your decision to write?

I started writing when I was in Hong Kong. I was teaching English and my job happened to have a posting in Hong Kong. My partner, who grew up in Hong Kong, wanted to go back home and asked me to go with him. While I was teaching over there, I felt I needed to do more studies and get a master’s degree.

So, I went to the university (of Hong Kong) and… it was really strange. The receptionist, she looked at me, and said: ‘Don’t apply for this, apply for this. It’s a brand-new course in creative writing.’ I guess, she kind of knew that writing was something I wanted to do. I applied.

The course was their inaugural Postgrad Diploma in Creative Writing [now MFA]. I had great teachers, like Shirley Geok-lin Lim. She was the one who brought in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. She opened the class with ‘My name is Esperanza’ and then asked us to write.

As soon as I wrote my response, I just went, ‘Yes, this is it. This is the story.’ Then I read more by Sandra Cisneros and said, ‘Yes, this is the kind of book I want to write.’

Asian American/ Malaysian-Singapore poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim has inspired so many authors to embrace multilingualism in their writing. What was it like to learn from her?

Shirley is amazing; she is my mentor. When I met her, I didn’t know she was homesick. She had come to Hong Kong to set up this course, so she was living away from home and kind of treated us [her students] like her kids.

And I don’t know why, perhaps because I was so homesick too, it felt like she was extended family.

Shirley knew what to draw out from people and what stories they needed to tell. There were 12 of us in the course, then some classmates dropped out. It ended up being a cohort of nine for two years. I’m still friends with them. We all got to know each other well. We’d write together, go to classes, do things together.

Shirley threw a party for us when we finished. She was wonderful, warm, generous, the type of person who gives you everything. And she just pushed you. There was nothing you couldn’t write about, but she knew what you ‘had to write’.

I want to reflect that naturalness when talking with someone bilingual who uses English Spanish, English Spanish interchangeably; it has this beautiful musicality. That’s what I’m trying to capture.

In your essay ‘A summer in your city,’ which was published in Puentes issue 1, you talk about Argentina. Can you tell us more about visiting your mum’s country?

I went to Argentina when I was a very little girl, and then again a few years ago. It was like having bookend trips.

My mum migrated to Australia before the internet and all the things we now use to communicate. There was letter writing, but the post took a long time to come (if it did), and there really wasn’t phone calls because they were too expensive. Growing up, we were quite isolated. We have no extended family here.

Going to Argentina was strange. I went with my sister and with my partner. There was family on both sides, but we didn’t want to overwhelm them, yet as soon as we arrived, they wanted to meet us. We met our extended family, my cousins, their children, our second cousins, and then on the very last day, I met my abuela, my mum’s mum.

Growing up, the country was an idea in my head, but not the one I knew when I went there. It was like sort of looking at a city in a strange new way, yet understanding things such as the way people talk, act and behave. It was also about reconnecting with family that you didn’t know you had.

Code-switching in your writing looks so easy …

Code-switching is hard. I know there’s the rule that it has to make sense to the non-Latino reader in the context.

I’ve had comments about code-switching, people saying ‘I don’t understand this word’ or ‘You should structure it so that even if the word is not understood the context helps readers understand it.’ And it is like that, of course, but in fiction in particular, it’s not always easy. It doesn’t sound as natural.

I want to reflect that naturalness when talking with someone bilingual who uses English Spanish, English Spanish interchangeably; it has this beautiful musicality. That’s what I’m trying to capture.

Sometimes [in my writing] I’ll use Spanish [in dialogue], but the response is in English so readers understand. If a reader is curious, they’ll read something they don’t understand and look it up.

But this, like much of my work, is not for an English-only audience, it’s for me. Like those books I found: they were written for us; for and by people who speak and are like me.

You are also an academic. Do you think that multilingual writing is having a moment or is more accepted than perhaps 10 years ago?

Yes, I think there’s much more diversity and more people are talking about than before, when it was just in small pockets or from an obscure publisher. I’m seeing a shift in mainstream attitudes towards linguistic diversity, like Ocean Vuong with his work featuring both Vietnamese and English.

Multilingual writing needs a bit more acceptance. Here [in Australia], people come from a lot of different countries, and it should be replicated in the literature that’s out there.

This is happening on TV in Latino TV shows from the US, where they use code-switching and where you can also see diversity in language, characters and stories. I think slowly it may happen here too, but maybe because our audience is so small in Australia compared with the US, it might take a while.

Now that you mention TV shows, sometimes it feels as if we, as Latin Americans, are seen through the lens of the US and that the expectation is for us to be and sound like the characters in those shows yet we don’t always have the same issues. Would you agree with this? And if so, what has been your experience of being misrepresented?

That’s an important question because people don’t exist through stereotypes or a particular representation. What I’ve been looking at now is closer to Tanya Saracho’s stories [such as the TV show Vida], whose characters are people with everyday struggles. She doesn’t frame the stories as telenovelas either, it’s just everyday drama and good storytelling.

I think that’s something that needs to happen here, acknowledge that we exist. We have lives, we do ‘normal things’ and have ‘normal relationships’, but there’s the Latino element in it. How does that operate within this society? I think that’s important to recognise.

What was your experience of being Latin American in Australia?

It’s really important to understand that even though I get misrepresented as being a whitetina or being white, I’m Latina. I’m also mixed.

There’s a difference when you grow up in a non-Anglo house. I still speak Spanish to my mum and my sister. There is now more code-switching, but Spanish was the language I [we] spoke with my parents, family, friends, and old family friends.

Spanish is your first point of reference and it’s important to not forget where you are from, but then every day at work I use English. So, I negotiate by reading a lot and watching a lot in Spanish. I reconnect that way.

You mentioned you’ve been working on a manuscript. Tell us about it.

I have two manuscripts. The first one is a short story collection which I started writing in Hong Kong and finished in Melbourne. It is about growing up in Brisbane as a migrant girl. I’ts partly auto-fictional, mostly fictional. The collection is very much inspired by Sandra Cisneros, but also by Junot Diaz semi-autobiographical short stories Drown/ Negocios where you see these Latinos living away trying to re-connect to their roots.

If you don’t see yourself represented, or if you don’t see work which shows how you speak, or your community or your culture is not there, write about it.

My other project started as research. A tutor suggested I continue writing fiction about my father’s life. I ended up doing that for part of my PhD and then wrote that novel. So, I have two manuscripts.

What books do you recommend to Puentes readers?

I finished reading Mariana Enriquez’s The dangers of smoking in bed/ Los peligros de fumar en la cama. She’s so good. Someone recommended the book and it blew me away. I’ve been following Enriquez for a while and attending her talks. Silvina Ocampo’s cuentos are also quite amazing.

I’ve been reconnecting with Clarice Lispector’s cuentos, slowly reading her books. I tend to read more female writers and the challenge for me is reading them in Spanish. I also follow Isabel Allende and Julia Alvarez because I love their storytelling and who they are.

In your teaching practice, what have your students shared with you that has made a difference to your own writing?

Enthusiasm. Passion. Like in the class I had now, the students are so switched on. It’s about what they see, what they bring, their energy, their ideas.

I don’t like the top-down teaching approach. So it’s sharing and having conversations about writing and the possibility of where things can go and how they can change.

This week, the students were teaching me about what they like and what’s important to them now and how they think these things get communicated in writing. It’s seeing things fresh and alive and being very present, especially when I’m always writing about the past!

What words of advice would you give to other writers?

Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. If that’s what you want.

If you don’t see yourself represented, or if you don’t see work which shows how you speak, or your community or your culture is not there, write about it.

It’s important to encourage people to write these things. Diversity is writing right into the gaps in literature.