Dionisia Morales grew up in New York City and now lives and writes in Oregon. Her new collection of essays, Homing Instincts, just came out from OSU Press.
Dionisia recently talked with Rose City Reader about her new book, storytelling, and her ideas of home.
Did you set out to write 14 essays about how the concept of “home” plays out in daily life, or did you later find this common thread running through your writing? How did this collection come together?
About half of the essays in Homing Instincts were previously published in literary journals. One day, I stepped back and looked at them as a whole and found that even though they covered a wide range of topics—from beekeeping to rock climbing to people watching—there was a central theme running through them: How do we define “home”? It turns out that I have been trying to answer that question for years in my writing, approaching it from different angles. With those first essays complete, I set out to write new ones to knit together the idea that we often define home in different ways at different times in our lives. I’m from New York City but have chosen to settle in Oregon. My bi-coastal identity is a big part of the collection, but my hope is that the essays transcend a connection to any specific place and lead readers to consider questions of belonging more broadly.
Your essays seem very much drawn from your own experiences. How would you describe your inspiration?
I come from a family of storytellers. Noticing details and turning them into entertaining anecdotes was a big part of my growing up. I learned some of the best lessons about creative nonfiction writing craft from conversations with my family that started with a story but ended as a discussion about bigger issues.
Intriguing and odd things happen to all of us in the course of a day. When I have a story I want to tell in my writing, I stop and think about how it can go beyond my personal experience and connect to the lives and interests of other people. A good essay is more than just a journal entry; it needs to provide a view into the life of the writer but also open a door for readers to find themselves in the text. I get inspiration from all parts of my life—my kids and my hobbies, the things that make me laugh and the things that bore me. And when I sit down to write about them, I ask: “Now, what’s all this really about?”
Did you also learn something about yourself from writing these essays that you didn’t know before?
Through the process of writing Homing Instincts, I’ve learned that my definition of home is fluid; it has changed as I have changed. It used to bother me that my sense of home wasn’t more constant, as though that were a sign I was unrooted. But now I equate home with a feeling of belonging—which I find in different ways on different days—rather than a tie to a specific place.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
I had a very active imagination as a kid and loved hearing and telling stories. I didn’t think writing was an option for me because, when I was around seven years old, the school librarian told my class that all good writers are good readers. I was a remedial reader all through elementary school and struggled with reading comprehension. The school put me in a special program several days a week to meet with a reading specialist. Reading and writing remained difficult for me through middle and high school, but I was lucky to have patient teachers. I wasn’t one of those kids who got lost in a book for pleasure; reading more often felt like a chore because it was so difficult. I feel fortunate that I can enjoy reading now but can get overwhelmed, like a need to make up for lost time. The notion that all writers are good readers stayed with me for a long time, and I didn’t know I could be a writer until I actually was one. I knew I would always continue with my family’s passion for spinning a good tale. It just took time to realize that I could also put those ideas on the page.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
Next October, I am reading at the Magic Barrel, an annual literary event held in Corvallis, Oregon to benefit the Linn Benton Food Share. That month I will also participate in the Oregon Authors Day in Coos Bay. In November, I will be at the Wild Arts Book Fair in Portland.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
As a nonfiction writer, if I am missing or am unsure about a piece of information, it can feel like a barrier to moving an essay forward. A valuable piece of advice given to me was to treat these instances as opportunities to ask questions about the information I don’t have. For example: Why is the information so important? Am I making it out to be more important than it is? What would I gain by having it? What would I lose? How far would I go to get it? Exploring a subject this way—peripherally instead of head on—can take an essay in pleasantly unusual directions. I think of it like coming to a high wall in the woods. If I can’t get over it, I might as well walk along with my hand on it to feel for an opening. Maybe I’ll find one or figure out a way around, but if that doesn’t happen, then the essay becomes something else, something unexpected, a different adventure than what I’d planned.
Is there a story behind your name? Having an unusual first name myself (Gilion with a hard G), I like to ask people where they got theirs.
Growing up, my father told us that the tradition in his family was for the paternal grandfather to name the grandchildren. Since my father’s father was no longer alive when my brothers and I were born, my father took over that role. As it turns out, there was no such tradition in his family; he just made that up. I think he did it, in part, to give us unusual names without letting my mother have a say in it. My name is Greek and my brothers’ names are Spanish, but we have no roots in those cultures. I’ve always liked that my name stands out. As a kid I sometimes wished I could find “Dionisia” or even just my nickname, “Dio,” on one of those mini license plates that you could hang on your bike. I knew I’d never find one, but I always checked, just in case.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
My next project is a memoir about my father. He reinvented himself in his twenties, not only changing his name but also creating a new origin story. I am reuniting with long-lost cousins to learn about our family and am getting glimpses into the complicated circumstances that led my father to want to be someone else and start over again.
THANK YOU DIONISIA!
HOMING INSTINCTS IS AVAILABLE FROM POWELL'S, AMAZON, AND OSU PRESS, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT!
Author photo by Ralf Dujmovits.