December 03, 2020

Maria Hinojosa

On voicing her own memoir: ‘I am the character, she is me!‘
Interview by

Author Maria Hinojosa’s performance of the Once I Was You audiobook is moving, funny, informative, heartbreaking and utterly captivating. Here she discusses her role as narrator, which allowed her to fall back in love with her own book.

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Maria Hinojosa’s masterful book on American immigration and her own family story is a must-read in its own right, but the Mexican American author is also the anchor and executive producer of NPR’s program "Latino USA," and she brings that knowledge and experience to her performance of the Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America audiobook. It’s moving, funny, heartbreaking, informative and utterly captivating, making it one of the best audiobooks of the year. Here Hinojosa discusses her role as narrator, which allowed her to fall back in love with her own book.

As you were writing the book, were you imagining the way it would be delivered on audio?
I was absolutely not thinking about the audiobook when I was writing! It would’ve been too hard for me to even begin to think that way. The upside for me, however, is that I am always reading things out loud while I’m writing, because that’s what I do for work. As a radio journalist, at some point, everything I’ve written I have said out loud. If it doesn’t roll off my tongue, that’s when I might change something, especially if it doesn’t sound right. But I never thought about the audiobook when I was writing my book.

“A writer is always so conflicted about their work, so it was liberating to be able to be in this space of my words, without being judgmental or changing anything.”

Was there any question that you would narrate the audiobook? If so, what was that process like?
For me, it was an absolute given to narrate the audiobook, but I have to be honest with you: It was one of the things that I felt the most overwhelmed by! I’ve never had to read something as massive as an entire book, and the thought of doing that was actually quite terrifying and overwhelming.

Tell us about transforming your book into an audiobook. How did you prepare?
I prepared like I was going to run a marathon. Even though I felt very overwhelmed by the number of hours it would take for me to record, I had to convince myself that I was going to make it! The pandemic forced me to transform one of the bedrooms in my home into a studio, but in order to work I have to ask everybody in the entire household to be quiet when we record. There was just no way that I could have asked the entire household to be quiet for five hours at a time, much less make the street noise disappear.

In a sense, recording the audiobook was my first break from this psychological barrier of “working from home,” as it marked my return to the office studio. I prepared myself with a lot of tea and my dog, who sat on my lap for about half of the recordings when he wasn’t noisy.

And then there were other parts, like preparing for the more emotional parts of the book. There’s really no way to prepare for that. In fact, my emotions caught me off guard a few times, I just couldn’t help it.

Did narrating your memoir change your relationship to it in any way?
Yes! I fell in love with my book.

A writer is always so conflicted about their work, so it was liberating to be able to be in this space of my words, without being judgmental or changing anything. I vividly remembered the ideas that I had, where I was when I had them, how I imagined this moment of holding this book, I was emotionally connected to it. I reflected on the story of my arrival, and then my time as a young woman. I cried during the scene of my rape, and I found myself rooting for my character as I read on! I laugh about it now because I am the character, she is me! The process of narrating completely transformed my relationship to the memoir, even after I never imagined that it would.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the Once I Was You audiobook, plus more great audio recommendations.

Did you picture a specific audience to whom you were performing, and did the relationship to your perceived audience change through this performance?
Imagine this story as if you were telling it to your mother.

I always write with this in mind. Keep in mind this doesn’t necessarily work when writing a memoir, but it helps to focus on telling the story to one person. I didn’t have an image of a reader, per se, but I knew that I had to use my voice to connect to them. When you connect to somebody’s writing, it is powerful because it is such an intimate experience, but imagine an added element—the element of your voice. You can use your own voice to exude sensuality, anger, love, raw emotions. I go into the studio a lot, so doing this wasn’t particularly hard for me. I just close my eyes and go into a space.

We can demand that silenced voices need to be heard, that untold history needs to be brought to light, but to hear your voice narrate Once I Was You drives it home, from the strength you imbue into your mother’s voice to the sly tone with which you skewer hypocrisy and racism. Did you have any goals for your narration?
As you may know, I wanted to be an actor, so I have learned to understand the power of my voice figuratively and literally. I have to be honest and say there were moments when I wanted to just keep reading and get through it. But then there were other moments where I wanted to be a good actor, and it turns out I was actually just being my most authentic self! I really wanted to entertain you and draw you in with my voice, use it in the way that radio journalists know we can and share this feeling with the reader.

Once I Was YouWas there a section of your memoir that proved most difficult to narrate, and how did you get through it?
The hardest part of my narration was when I read about my assault. I cried. It took me a while to get through it, maybe because of the way I wrote it. It was very graphic and one of the parts of the book that I wrote while crying. It felt like the scab was off, and I was diffing deeper into my wounds when I talked about this moment and others.

It was hard, but I also felt like I needed to go through that pain as part of my therapy. I needed it to heal. It was hard to relive the moment of almost being taken from my mom, and writing about my dad (may he rest in peace) while feeling him coming toward me. That was hard.

What do you believe is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to the reading of your book?
I get to bring my drama! I really wanted to bring my entire personality with the book, let loose and be funny, silly, capturing the laughter or cynicism. When writing, you try to take people into those spaces, but when you get to record your audiobook, it’s all about getting people there faster! I loved it!

Are you a frequent audio listener? What role do audiobooks play in your life?
To tell you the truth, I don’t do audiobooks, and I don’t know why! For me, reading a book is in the pleasure of the reading because it’s like a sixth sense that I’m using. I’ve almost felt like I need somebody to initiate me into audiobooks with the best audiobook there is out there to listen to because I am all about having the book in my hand, like the actual book. Even digital books sometimes don’t do it for me. There’s something that’s a little bit less satisfying about them. But I am prepared to try an audiobook because I’m prepared to give my fans an opportunity to tell me which audiobook is the best I can start with!


Author photo by Kevin Abosch

Get the Book

Once I Was You

Once I Was You

By Maria Hinojosa
ISBN 9781982128654

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