Creating a mosaic: the life and writing of Dorina Lazo Gilmore
May 9, 2008
Children's author and Calvin alumna Dorina Lazo Gilmore '99 returned to campus in April to speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, April 17-19, 2008. Ashleigh Draft caught up with Gilmore in between sessions to talk about her life as a writer and how she feels about Calvin after being away for nine years.
AD: How did you first learn about Calvin?
DLG: I’m not Dutch at all … but I can play Dutch bingo now! It seems like wherever I am in the country, if I mention that I’m from Calvin, somehow I’m connected to someone that someone knows. Actually, my parents found out about Calvin through some friends who attend a Christian Reformed church there, and they knew that we were looking at all different colleges. They recommended Calvin to us because they knew that it was such a great academic school, and it had some of the things I was looking for. I was actually intending to go to college in California, but when I came out here to visit for Fridays at Calvin, I just fell in love with it. There was such warmth from people. I still really remember that visit. And, being from a minority background, I was really grateful for how Calvin reached out to minority students, offering scholarships and that kind of thing.
AD: What initially attracted you to a Christian college?
DLG: I grew up in a Christian home, and I went to a private high school, where my mom taught, in Chicago. But it was private-independent, so there was a diversity of cultures and religions. I was interested, actually, in going to a big school at first. But then when I started visiting colleges, I realized I had such a gift in high school by knowing everyone in my community. So being from a Christian background, I thought I’d start looking at some Christian schools. I visited probably a dozen across the country,…and God just opened up the door at Calvin for me, and I was really excited to come here—not exactly knowing what it would be like when I was here.
AD: What was your experience like at Calvin?
DLG: It was a mix—I was kind of reflecting on that today being back on campus [for the Festival of Faith and Writing]. I’ll be honest and say that my first week of school was a pretty big culture shock because I was very much a minority on campus. People remembered me because I was the girl with big hair, and I was short, and I looked really different… But what I always say is that I really loved my college experience because I feel like Calvin prepared me for the world. I feel like God had me here for a reason, and it was a reason I didn’t realize as I was applying to colleges. Being a minority on campus I had a real opportunity to get involved… I was an RA [resident asssistant] for the mosaic community my sophomore year and I was the [student] director my junior year. Also, as a freshman, I got involved in Chimes staff. It was a place where I could use my writing and my passion for multiculturalism to really reach out to the campus.
AD: What do you mean when you say “Calvin prepared me for the world”?
DLG: It’s so huge. I’ll try to think of how to distill it. On one level I say “Calvin prepared me for the world,” in terms of career, in journalism and writing. Journalism and writing are cutthroat worlds, where you have to stick to your convictions, and you have to sometimes ask the hard questions; and I feel like my formal education here at Calvin really prepared me for that. Not only did my professors ask me to do those things, but they asked me to integrate it with my faith, and I had never done that before in a school setting. That was something that was really inspiring to me, and now looking back, I see how valuable that was. When you’re in college, you don’t always understand how God’s going to use that in your life.
AD: Are there any places on campus that bring back strong memories for you?
DLG: Definitely the Chimes office because I spent many late nights there! I remember so many wonderful days when we would go to class, be inspired and then run outside and do our homework on a picnic blanket. Even just being in some of the lectures for the Festival [of Faith and Writing] reminds me of some of the wonderful classes and professors that I had. When we arrived with all of our baggage, Don Hettinga, who was my journalism professor and advisor, came and found us right away and gave me a hug and helped us bring our baggage up to our room.
AD: Tell me about your most recent book project, A Stone in the Soup.
DLG: Well actually my publisher—I had published another book with her, called Children of the San Joaquin Valley—approached me about this book. She really wanted to do a book that highlighted the Hmong community in Fresno. We have one of the largest Hmong communities in the country, and [my publisher] is involved with a lot of nonprofit work in that community. It was a fun project because I got to learn about a culture that I didn’t know a lot about, which was, in a way, using some of my journalism skills. I would interview people and talk to them about some of their experiences.
It’s been an interesting journey with this book because I’m not from Hmong background, but I really care about the culture and about portraying them in an accurate way. So right away when I go to a school visit or I give a speech about the book I say “I’m not Hmong, and I’m not claiming to be an expert” —but at the same time I feel really passionate about telling people’s stories from all different cultures.
AD: Can you give an overview of your work?
DLG: I started out in daily journalism, working for a newspaper full time. I was really enjoying journalism, but I went on a mission trip to Haiti—where my husband’s family is from—and I really felt called to do some mission work there. So I went to Haiti and taught English there for a little while, and when I got back my job at the newspaper wasn’t there anymore. Today my primary focus is being a mother. My daughter just turned two, so I took this year off from teaching [at Fresno Pacific University] so I could spend more time with her. I’m focusing right now on children’s and young adult writing. I’m finishing a MFA in children’s literature, and my thesis is a young adult novel—which is what I’m working on right now.
AD: How have you negotiated between your work as a mother and your career?
DLG: When you become a mother you’re always negotiating those sorts of things, and it’s never easy making a decision one way or the other. When she was an infant I used to bring her to campus with me, and I could meet with students while she was there…. Now that she’s two though, I can’t really get a lot of work done if she’s there. Since teaching wasn’t really my career goal, it was a pretty easy decision to leave that. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always dreamed about publishing books… Right now I’m seeing if I can pursue the dream of being a writer and being a mom. Those two things work well together, I think, but they also take a lot of discipline. I hear writers talk about, you know, sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, and that’s certainly not my world right now. I’m lucky if I get a couple hours in a week. Sometimes I struggle with that, but I try to remind myself that this is a season-my daughter is only going to be a toddler for a few years, so I want to embrace that and realize that that will help me as a writer, too. So I’m still negotiating all these decisions.
AD: How does your Calvin education intersect with your writing?
DLG: I can confidently say that everything I’ve done in writing stems back to some spark that started while I was at Calvin—whether in a formal class, or an interim. I have this little folder in my filing cabinet of a bunch of things I wrote then, many of which are not worth anything! But that was just the seed, a beginning. It’s not just about formal education; it’s about relationships, about things you experience in your daily life at college. That’s what’s so valuable about going to a liberal arts school where you live on campus. I was involved in lots of things outside of class that I think really shaped who I am as a writer, as a mother, and as a wife, as someone in my community.
AD: What sort of effect do you want your writing to have?
DLG: That’s a great question. I will say that one of my goals and passions in being a writer for children and young adults is to write stories that children and young adults of a multicultural background—like myself—can relate to. The number of young people from that background is growing—the country is very much changing from all these different pockets of minorities to a mixed-race country.
That kind of literature was something I longed for as a child and I sought out. But I think as a writer that’s my primary goal: writing something that’s real and authentic for young people who are really grappling with their cultural identity. I think multicultural literature has come a long way, but we have a long way to go. If people who are from mixed-race backgrounds aren’t willing to write the stories—and sometimes write the difficult stories, we don’t really have a future; it’s just a multicultural literature “trend.”
Another thing that I haven’t ventured into very much is that aspect of faith. Faith and culture are so interrelated; I definitely see myself exploring that more in the future, and that’s part of why the festival is something that’s really exciting to me. It’s exciting for me to be a part of and ask those questions.
It sort of goes back to the idea of the mosaic. We have within us all these beautiful colored pieces, but they’re just these shards of glass if we don’t put them together—either in a story form or in a mosaic, which is this big, beautiful picture. I love that image; I always use that image when I’m talking to kids, about how we can create this mosaic by sharing our pieces with other people.
~by Ashleigh Draft, communications & marketing