Tina Ontiveros is a writer, teacher, and bookseller based in the Pacific Northwest. Her memoir, rough house, tells her story of growing up below the poverty line in small timber towns around the Pacific Northwest, living mostly with her charming but abusive father, sometimes with her mother, who struggled with her own demons.
Release last fall from OSU Press, rough house was picked as an Indie Next Great Read and won a 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
Tina talked with Rose City Reader about rough house, writing about a family like hers, and other memoirs that inspired her:How did you come to write your memoir rough house?
Honestly, I think I have always been writing it. I think that, before I sat down to write rough house, the story was writing me. For a long time, I let anxiety about my past and the shame of poverty dictate my entire life. I didn’t really know where I was trying to go, only what I was running from. Early in my writing process, I worked with the amazing poet and writer Bhanu Kapil. I wrote to her once and asked-if Loyd was a monster, and Loyd is my father, what does that make me? Her response -- In this writing, you are the maker of Loyd -- was a liberation. Once I accepted that power, I was able to write the story with a sense of wonder and curiosity.
But I also have to say -- education and financial freedom are a big part of it. As I moved out of poverty, and as I became more educated, I was able to set down the shame and write. In her memoir, A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros says that self expression is a privilege of the wealthy. I find this to be true. If I were not financially secure, I don’t think I’d have the courage, the space, the privacy, or the free time to take the risk of writing the story.
Your book won a 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award – congratulations! Can you tell us how the Pacific Northwest shaped your childhood and your story?
My environment -- the natural world and the towns I grew up in -- are an integral part of rough house. Everything about the book is shaped by the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. My mom, once she left my dad, lived on the edge of the Oregon desert. The Dalles is almost always sunny, brown, dry. My dad roamed around the region, but almost always in the green spaces. With my dad, it was evergreens, water, rich brown soil. So I came to experience my life as having these two opposite environmental poles -- just as my parents were like the opposing poles that marked the boundaries of my life growing up. I was always existing back and forth between them. While I grew to build a life more like my mother’s -- living within the bounds of more conventional society -- I always preferred my father’s physical environment. Today, I live next to the water, surrounded by green trees.
Your memoir is intensely personal – did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
While I was writing the first draft, I never considered the idea I might publish. I knew that would shape the work and my focus was on the work. It’s always important to remember that the book is not my life -- it is a made thing. I used many tools to make it. My personal history is the central element of the work, but because I applied the tools of fiction and poetry to this work, there is a distance between me and the made thing that is rough house. My discipline is reading and writing, my practice is reading and writing. And making the book was an act of discipline and practice.
Once I knew it would be published, I had a moment of worry over some of the more personal parts. I even wrote that anxiety into the Worst Thing chapter -- but even there, those are some of the most revised and rewritten pages in the book. Every aspect of it is a made thing. My only concern was how it might impact my mom and my brother -- I wouldn’t have published without their blessing. But they both loved the book and wanted it to be shared with the world.
Did you consider turning your own experience into fiction and writing the book as a novel?
No, not in this case. Because I had become financially secure and had the privilege of education, I felt a responsibility to put a family like mine in a book. I wanted to share the strength and valor of women like my mother -- who really do not have my options and do the best they can. And I hoped that children who grow up with parents whose choices are so limited could see themselves in my pages. I think books about the poor can be too focused on hardship and darkness. For me, a big part of growing up below the poverty line was this sense of always feeling outside of society. And often, the books we read about the poor reduce people to images that are easy for us to consume. I worry about writing something that might further marginalize and shame people who live in poverty. I wanted to tell the truth about the hard parts, but also capture the joy, beauty, and poetry of our lives. There is treasure there that I would not have found in any other life.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
I think I wrote the book for people who live, or have lived, in similar circumstances. I get letters from people like that and I love it -- just hearing their stories and how reading rough house made them feel proud of their stories. But I also wanted it to reach people who have not lived that way. Now that I am middle class, I notice the ways we make rash judgments of the poor and I’d like to help change that if I can. In this country, we like to say anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but it simply isn’t true. Not everyone has boots. Some are born at such a deficit, it takes generations to catch up. Not all people are given the chance to realize their potential. And it is very frustrating to live that way, to try to raise your children in joy when you can’t give them the same opportunities as other children.
Can you recommend other memoirs that deal with traumatic childhoods? Do any tell about growing up in turmoil and poverty with the candor and heart you put into your own story?
I read so many memoirs while I was writing rough house! Not just those about traumatic childhoods, but anything that might help me build my own. I think Maya Angelou did it best in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I love Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior. The poet Mark Doty has a wonderful memoir called, Firebird. More recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle. Terese Marie Mailhot, Heart Berries. Jaquira Diaz, Ordinary Girls. But I was influenced by novelists, poets, and essayists as well, like James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, Toni Morrison, Sula, Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams and so many more -- too many to list.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
So many things! But one that always proves true -- just keep writing and trust the process. I had no idea what shape the book would have, which stories would stay in and which would have to be cut, what I was even trying to say with the book. But I just kept writing until I had enough pages to stand back and really consider what they wanted to be. Then I revised and revised and revised, until the book emerged. For me, revision is like 93% of writing. So often, I work with students who want to be writers but don’t sit down to read & write each day. That’s what it is to be a writer. Not to publish, but to write and to read as part of your daily life.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I read everything, I will give pretty much any book a bit of my time. But mostly, I spend my money on essays, poetry, and literary/lyric nonfiction by women, writers of color, and folks who are working to give voice to people we have not heard from enough in our literary canon. I am interested in life in the margins, ways we can untangle the web of shame that binds people in poverty for generations, and in people who create and sing despite oppression.
I just finished reading an advanced copy of Elissa Washuta’s new book, White Magic, which releases in April from Tin House. It’s amazing. I also just finished Willy Vlautin’s new novel, The Night Always Comes, which is a wonderful and sad book that really illustrates the truth that capitalism just does not work for everyone. Now I’m reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s new book, A Little Devil in America. I was so excited to get my hands on it. Abdurraqib is one of my favorite writers working today. I’ll read anything he writes.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
This is actually my first week off from book events since the end of September! I am lucky and grateful for such a wonderful launch to my first book -- despite the pandemic. rough house was a PNBA bestseller for 17 straight weeks. We are now headed into the third printing. With the PNW Book Award, the Indie Next honor, it has all just been amazing. It has also been very time consuming. I didn’t realize it would be like another job!
I have quite a few private events coming up but nothing open to the public for a while. I’m lucky to have some interest around the region in rough house as a community read book. I’ll be doing some events with the Roseburg, Oregon public library in May and it looks like some other library/community read events are in the works. I’m very excited to be joining the faculty at North Words Writer’s Symposium in Alaska this summer. Tommy Orange is scheduled as the Keynote and I admire his work very much. New events pop up all the time and are updated (with some regularity) on my website.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
I could never pick just one thing as the most valuable. I owe my writing life to so many generous mentors along the way. While I was working on an early draft of this book, the poet Beatrix Gates told me to write as if nobody will ever read your work. Following her advice really made this a better book.
Any tips or hints for authors considering writing a memoir?
I think everyone should write about their lives. It just helps you to process your experience of the world peacefully and thoughtfully. But writing for yourself and writing to be read are two entirely different things.
If you are writing to be read, you have to have some emotional distance from the events of the story. I never truly enjoy a memoir when I can sense the writer is still sort of grinding an ax. Memoir that really engages me has a sense of curiosity and exploration. It’s impossible to have that if you are entrenched in a specific version of the truth or you are holding on to anger. I read that Mary Karr tells people to write the most difficult thing first -- the thing that keeps them up at night. If they can’t, then they aren't ready to write the story. I tell students the same thing -- write the worst thing first. If you can do that without too much emotion, you might be able to write the story with the sort of curiosity and wonder that makes it good literature.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
A few things. I am really interested in the essay form right now. I published an essay with Oregon Humanities magazine last year and have been working on a collection of essays ever since. I am also chipping away at another memoir, about growing up in The Dalles with my mom. It is roughly the same era as rough house, but a very different sort of poverty, with a single mom who worked all the time, which gave us kids tons of freedom. I’ve also been tinkering with another project that is based on my family but I’m playing with magical realism and imagination in that project -- sort of pushing the boundaries of nonfiction. Everything I write is concerned with inequality and class. That just seems to be where my curiosity goes right now.
THANK YOU, TINA!