Intimate Conversation with Iris Gomez


Intimate Conversation with author Iris Gomez

IRIS GOMEZ is the author of the novel TRY TO REMEMBER and of two poetry collections, Housicwhissick Blue (Edwin Mellen Press 2003) and When Comets Rained (CustomWords 2005). An award-winning writer, she is also a nationally-respected public interest immigration lawyer and law school lecturer. She was born in Cartagena, Colombia and presently lives in the Boston area.

BPM:   Iris, it was such a pleasure to meet you a few weeks ago! The book is beautiful. Take us inside the book. If she tries, Gabriela can almost remember when her father went off to work . . . when her mother wasn't struggling to undo the damage he caused . . . when a short temper didn't lead to physical violence. But Gabi cannot live in the past, not when one more outburst could jeopardize her family's future. So she trades the life of a normal Miami teenager for a career of carefully managing her father's delusions and guarding her mother's secrets. As Gabi navigates her family's twisting path of lies and revelations, relationships and loss, she finds moments of happiness in unexpected places. Ultimately Gabi must discover the strength she needs to choose what's right for her: serving her parents or a future of her own.

BPM:   What are two major events taking place?              
A major event that is happening is that Roberto is losing his mind, which is causing him to also lose his jobs, his temper, and his traditional place in the household. Another major event for Gabi is the discovery that she has lost her father.

BPM:   I so love this one review of your book. It speaks volumes:"Fresh and vibrant . . . I adored every single page." -- Mameve Medwed, national bestselling author of How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life and Of Men and Their Mothers

BPM:   Introduce us to the main characters of  TRY TO REMEMBER.
Gabriela (“Gabi”) is the main character – a soulful and generous Colombian teenager who is trying to help her bewildered immigrant family cope with her father’s growing mental illness without going crazy herself. 
Roberto (Gabi’s father) is a once proud breadwinner who now keeps losing jobs and has suddenly been given to fits of temper and episodes of mental unraveling that no one around him understands.

Evi is Gabi’s mother, a traditionally raised immigrant woman forced by circumstances into an uncomfortable head of household role she shamefully hides from her husband as he slips deeper into his strange illness.
Gabi has a trio of tíos, or uncles, who dutifully answer the family’s 911s, though not always so successfully, as well as two younger brothers, and a lively group of relatives, friends and romantic interests who pull Gabi back and forth between the competing norms of Latino and “American” culture & traditional versus modern ideals of womanhood – and who also make her day-to-day life interesting and even fun!

Last but not least, Gabi’s absent grandfather Gabriel, who appears to us only in letters he writes to her from Colombia, is an important symbolic character – when the threat of violence begins to grow in her immediate family, he becomes the emblem of hope in her safe though distant childhood.

BPM:   Who were your favorite characters? Are your characters from the portrayal of real people?I loved my fictional Gabi, whom I named after my own smart and charming daughter. The fictional Gabi shares some of my daughter’s qualities along with a little of the younger me, but the circumstances that unfold in the novel inevitably turn Gabi the heroine into her own person, and by the time I was done writing the book, I wanted her to be my best friend!  

Another favorite character I’d like to mention, if a place can be a character, is Miami, the novel’s setting, which is based on a real city, of course, and one whose history I was intrigued by, since I’d witnessed its transformation first-hand when I lived there. Like Gabi, Miami is just coming into its own, developmentally and culturally, during the course of the novel – the southern expansion that began during the post-war boom years has accelerated, and the population is growing and diversifying, until finally a sprawling multi-cultural and international cosmopolis rises up from its dusty roots in the South.

BPM:   What specific revelation prompted you to write your book?The initial questions that inspired me to want to write this book were personal and similar to those Gabi faces throughout the course of the novel: what does it mean to love in a traditional family? Can you love your family and yet be independent of them? Is “love” the same as loyalty?  Like Gabi, I was raised with a strong ethic of family loyalty that in some ways conflicted with the ethic of independence I perceived was necessary for a young woman to achieve career success in this country. In the novel, I try to explore these conflicts by dramatizing how far a girl might have to go in remaining true to her family, despite the difficult burdens they impose.

Thematically, I was also interested in the issue of mental illness, which touches virtually all families and cultures, yet remains one of the untold stories of the Latino community. In my book, I try to illuminate some of the cultural taboos that keep mental illness hidden and untreated in families like Gabi’s, as well as the external social forces that drive many immigrants, even legal immigrants, into isolation and away from government entities that could actually help them. 

Additionally, in dramatizing the practical effects of Roberto’s mental decline, I found a perfect context in which to explore the human dimension of one of the legal problems that has troubled me in my work as an immigration lawyer: the rule that keeps immigrants forever vulnerable to losing their “green cards” and everything they’ve built in the U.S., even when this has become their permanent home. 

BPM:   Who do you want to reach with your book and the message within?I hope the book reaches anyone struggling to love a difficult person, whether mentally ill or not – and the related message I aim to impart to them is that the effort itself is honorable and ultimately redemptive. 
I also hope to reach people who are interested in the ways each of us navigates a place for ourselves in this increasingly global, multi-ethnic and multi-racial world. One of the messages I hope the book imparts about Latinos is that the bonds of love which sometimes appear compulsory in our families can also be a saving grace, a strength.

BPM:   How will reading your book shape the readers lives?  In addition to being moved and enlightened by the novel’s big-picture dramas, I imagine readers will delight in getting to know Gabi and her unique, colorful world, and in going along on some of her adventures.   

BPM:   What are some of their specific issues, needs or problems addressed in this book?Dealing with a loved one’s mental illness can be an enormous challenge. The challenge is even greater when the illness remains untreated, as with Roberto’s in the novel. Gabi and her family make many mistakes out of pride as well as confusion as they watch Roberto deteriorate, but their mistakes are only part of the greater tragedy that in the end is no one’s fault.   

BPM:   What was the most powerful chapter in TRY TO REMEMBER?Some of my readers have said that the most dramatic chapter is the one in which the family conflicts come to a head (especially onto Gabi’s head!) and in which love is ultimately betrayed, but the chapter I personally find most powerful is the one with the hurricane – it’s my very humble homage to the magnificent hurricane scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, which remains one of my all time favorites in literature.    

BPM:   What do you think makes your book different from others on the same subject?Many books address the immigrant experience, some of them about the plight of undocumented people and some of them exploring cultural collision. My novel differs from novels and memoirs I’ve loved about Latinas coming of age (e.g., When I Was Puerto Rican, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, The House on Mango Street, Dreaming in Cuban, and others), since those focused on earlier or other Latino subgroups, and my book is about a girl forging her identity in the middle of Miami’s Cuban diaspora though she is actually part of a different diaspora, the Colombians, who’ve become the largest South American group in the U.S., according to census data. Gabi’s story explores the combined experience of being a newcomer with that of having a shared cultural identity – a feature of the new panamericanism that is shaping the cultural dynamics of the U.S.

My book is also different from others about the immigrant experience because it addresses a little-understood immigration problem: whether people who’ve been allowed to live in this country permanently and have families here should be subsequently stripped of their right to remain. In my novel, Roberto, a man with an untreated mental illness, commits a fairly run-of-the-mill offense that for a citizen would result only in a minor criminal punishment, but for an immigrant carries the double penalty of criminal punishment plus the threat of expulsion. Such deportations go to the core question underlying our larger public policy debate about immigration today: who really belongs here?

BPM:   How can our readers reach you online?
My web site is, and it contains a link to a dedicated email address I’ve set up especially for TRY TO REMEMBER readers. That address is:  If anyone is trying to reach me in connection with issues that involve my immigrant rights attorney role, it may be best to contact me at my office (that information is also available on my web site.) 


Book Reviews for Try to Remember

In this stunning debut novel, Iris Gomez offers a fresh and vibrant coming of age novel full of universal truths and dazzling particulars. The endearing Gabriela de la Paz must figure out how to belong to (and escape from) a family unhappy in its own way. As she translates the new world for clueless parents still stuck in the old, Gabriela is a character you’ll root for and grow to love. TRY TO REMEMBER is a book impossible to forget. I adored every single page. --- Mameve Medwed, national bestselling author of HOW ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING SAVED MY LIFE and OF MEN AND THEIR MOTHERS.

Gabriela’s story is truly lyrical, poignant, and smart, as compassionate and hopeful as it is heartbreaking. TRY TO REMEMBER is a novel you will never forget. --- -Jenna Blum, author of the New York Times bestseller THOSE WHO SAVE US.


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