Hawthorne recalls his strong-willed but unstable Puerto Rican mother in Happiness will Follow (Archaia, June.), a graphic memoir about their family’s struggle to survive in the mainland U.S.
What inspired you to focus your memoir on your mother?
We had the kind of relationship where really it was just she and I; it’s hard to imagine a story that doesn’t have her prominently in it. Also, part of me wanted to make sure there’s a piece of her in the world. My kids never got to meet her, so in a lot of ways she’s not a real person to them. With that said, there’s so much she’d be mad at me for exposing. In any abusive relationship, the abuser wants to keep it secret. It’s ironic that I want her to live on in the book, but I wouldn’t have been able to make the book had she lived on.
Was it hard to separate the truth in your family history with the stories you’d been raised with?
The hardest part of creating this book was coming to terms with never really knowing any of these folks I thought I knew. Through no fault of their own, I should add. My main source for information was my mother, and she had a vested interest in not telling me the truth. Though, I believe she thought that some of what she was saying was in fact true.
What did you learn that surprised you the most?
The depths of her mental illness. She was a tiny person, but to me she was twice that size, fearless and ferocious. I grew up, like lots of people, thinking that mental illness is some sort of weakness, and I could not fathom a world where she could be associated with weakness. Now I realize much of what she was doing to me or to herself was based on how unhealthy she was.
I was interested in how you portrayed her and Santeria—did you do a lot of research to get that right?
I was lucky enough to reach out to a Puerto Rican creative friend whose relative is a Santeria practitioner. In America there are assumptions that it’s some sort of black magic, when it’s genuinely not. It’s a thing that people take great comfort in. My mother did at certain times in her life, and it gave her a sense of control, which, frankly, is not that different than me growing up praying to Mary or doing my rosary.
What do you hope readers leave with at the end of the book?
The one thing that concerns me is that people might take away that my mother was the villain of the story. Just because it’s a comic book doesn’t mean she’s a comic book villain. I want people to see her as human, put themselves in her shoes, and see how difficult it is to be a single mother with zero support structure. And I would have loved for her to see that although, yes, we had a rough time, I turned out okay.