Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Coriander’ adds creative spice to non-fiction

By Madeleine Jackman

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Before sitting down to meet Gia Bernini for the first time in a small, side-street cafe in Northampton, I already knew some of her most personal life moments, thoughts and feelings. As she sipped on a cappuccino, I had the opportunity to ask her about her soul-baring book, “Coriander,” a collection of personal essays that touch on issues of identity, relationships, motherhood and faith.

What truly stands out when reading “Coriander” is the sincerity of her voice. Although it is creative nonfiction, the prose resonates more like poetry in its vulnerability.

(Courtesy of Gia Bernini)

(Courtesy of Gia Bernini)

“I’m really getting myself naked and walking around with this book. … I’m going to tell everybody what I’m thinking,” Bernini said.

Besides going through copy editing, her work was not changed in any way, and she is grateful that she was able to retain powerful authenticity. Although, she said, “It’s taken a lot of courage, which I didn’t expect I’d need.”

Bernini graduated from Hampshire College in the late 1980s where she focused on literary analysis and creative writing, and she went on to attain a master’s degree in social work. She’s written for a while now, but it was not until joining a writer’s workshop in Northampton in 2009 that she began working on the pieces that were later put into “Coriander.” The workshop is held once a week and forces her to write amidst her busy life as a social worker. Participants are given an hour to write. Working within this time constraint, and never even imagining that it would be published, Bernini’s pieces are each only a few pages long, but incredibly poignant and heartfelt.

Her academic background in both English and social work, as well as her personal experiences growing up in the United States with a Colombian mother and Dominican father, and having dated her Nicaraguan boyfriend for the past six years, allowed Bernini to very honestly and beautifully write about the struggle of not quite fitting into any one culture or identity.

In particular, Bernini shared that her relationship with her boyfriend has brought her “into this lifestyle where (I am) living multiple cultural experiences.” She expanded on this, saying, “I’m grateful to him for bringing me into that experience, but it’s a very splitting experience because you’re sort of living the American lifestyle and also living at home in a world of Latinos.”

This split has seemed to be most strongly felt in relation to her daughter, 17, and son, 20, who live the American lifestyle without fully realizing their Latino identity. As she writes in “Coriander,” their culture and identity is something they simply have, but don’t necessarily act on, or rather, “something they observe, but don’t partake in.”

“It’s been painful for me because I feel very divided,” Bernini said of this split. “I mean literally divided. I mean my day-to-day  is divided. I work with Latinos, I come home, I cook Latino food for my Latino boyfriend, and on occasions, I have to cook what my daughter and son like which is a little different – pasta, Italian food.”

Because “Coriander” focuses on deeply personal moments in Bernini’s life, which involve her children, boyfriend, neighbors and community, she was nervous at first about exploiting those who were close to her by writing about their lives. But her boyfriend and family were incredibly supportive. She let her boyfriend and children read over and approve the stories that were being included before putting them into the book.

None of the stories were vetoed, despite the fact that she expected her son to be wary of an essay that details a confrontation between them. He is also an artist, though, and she said, “Somehow he made that separation and didn’t take it personally. … He understood that that was a moment in time and part of his development.”

In regards to her neighbors, Bernini said, “I had to be courageous and tell them about it.”
That in itself is one of the most unforgettable and intriguing aspects of “Coriander.” Not only does Bernini share her own reflections, but she encourages the reader to self-reflect on their place in society – on their own relationships.

When asked about her target audience, she said, “I just knew that there would be people out there who could relate … Whether or not it’s about culture, it’s also just about what is the norm here? What is normal in a society where there’s so much consumerism and we go for this middle class American dream? What is that dream and what happens when you’ve somewhat attained it? Is it really home? Do you reach nirvana? Are you happy?”

Personally, Bernini has always felt like an outsider between cultures, allowing her to accept the position of observer, which is a particularly helpful place to be as a writer.

“In some of the pieces, it felt almost like I’ve been watching this going on for a while – now I’m going to tell you what I think … Here I am. This is what I think and what I feel. I exist in this world and this is a voice,” she said.

However, Bernini does recognize and appreciate her privilege of growing up in middle-class American society with a good education, and how that it has given her the ability to “pass.” Because of this, she has not undergone the same silencing that much of the Latino community struggles with.

“Everyone has a unique voice,” she said. “They really do.”

Writing is a powerful way to get your voice across, she added, and “searching for your authentic voice is a process. Engage in it. Do it.”

For Bernini, writing has been a sort of therapy, and a way to gain a deeper understanding of herself and control her own emotions and decisions. “Coriander” takes the readers on this complex, intersectional journey and ignites a curiosity within them to explore.

When asked what advice she would give to aspiring writers, Bernini said, “Go for it.”

She explained that if she had listened earlier on to what people were saying about her writing, particularly professors, she wouldn’t be writing now.

Bernini has two literary ideas in the works. She would love to write another collection of personal essays based on her travels to Nicaragua, and also a telenovela involving an immigrant story.

Although “Coriander” was always a deeply emotional and engaging book to work on, Bernini said that she “was surprised at how frightening it was to put out a book of this kind. I’m glad I did it. I held my breath, and I jumped and it’s out there.”

Madeleine Jackman can be reached at [email protected]

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