Pamplin Media

Woodstock writer publishes poignant and painful memoir

Elizabeth Ussher Groff for Pamplin Media

A local author comes to grips, in a published memoir, with the trauma and violence her parents faced 

"When trauma and violence occur, sometimes memories are suppressed or tucked away, deep into the history of a country, or inside a family, and individual psyches. And so it was with [Vargas-McPherson]. Under her pen name of C. Vargas McPherson, 'Inheriting our Names' the name of her 'imagined true memoir' was published in April to rave reviews. It has been praised for its beautifully-depicted epic of family, war, and trans-generational grief. In lyrical prose, the book reveals family history that had been deeply buried in the past." Read full article here.

Extended interview between Elizabeth Ussher Groff and C. Vargas McPherson:

1. As an English and philosophy major, you have been a writer for a long time.  What year did you start taking writing workshops?  Was it because you knew you wanted to write a book, or did that idea come from taking (how many?) workshops from Cheryl Strayed?  What year was that?

I have been writing since I was around 8-years-old when I discovered haiku. The scaffolding and structure of haiku and its focus on nature was a perfect entry into writing for me. I started my first “memoir” when I was 10 on an old manual typewriter my family found at a yard sale. The author Amy Tan once said, “I am a writer compelled by a subconscious ‘neediness’ to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.” She seems to be saying exactly what I was feeling as a 10-year-old and still feel today: bearing witness, seeking validation, making meaning from the incomprehensible … this is what has compelled me to write. I do my best thinking on paper!

In undergraduate and grad school, I took creative writing classes and had some small stories and poems published in college magazines. But earnestly writing a book didn’t occur to me until I was living in Italy with a newborn. (However, that travel/new mother memoir will forever live in the bottom drawer of my desk. )

The Attic Institute on SE Hawthorne Street has offered workshops by truly amazing local authors: Marc Acito, Merridawn Duckler, Emily Harris, Karen Karbo, Elinor Langer, Jennifer Lauck, Lee Montgomery, Whitney Otto, Paulann Petersen, Kim Stafford, to name just a few. I was lucky enough to take a memoir workshop with Cheryl Strayed right before her brave and enormously successful book Wild was released. I think that was in 2011. I registered for her workshop because I love her first book Torch and wanted to find a way to be that honest and vulnerable with my own writing, and I emerged from her class with a better understanding of how to approach each character with compassion. It was a remarkable experience. The Attic is such a wonderful resource for aspiring Portland writers.

2.   When I was one-third through the book, I began wondering how you managed to research, write and publish a book with children and maybe another job?  Were your children grown by then?  Just a kind of personal question. Did you work during the day on the research and writing – just one part of the day? Or?

Oh my goodness! Don’t forget that it took me 15 years to get this project completed! Part of that is because I had two children at home and was working parttime, and also (full confession) because I’m a slow writer and take lots of breaks … there are lots of demons that must be vanquished before picking up my pen: self-doubt, imposter syndrome, straight up fear! And there are the questions that infiltrate my thoughts: Is this story mine to tell? Will I harm anyone by telling it? Do I know enough about this subject to venture into this long overdue conversation? 

But even when I wasn’t writing, I read. I read many, many books and articles about Spain, the psychology of trauma and transgenerational grief, the ongoing trickle of news as the horrors of Franco’s regime surfaced. I did this all while the kids were napping or in school. I jotted notes on receipts in the pick-up line at Laurelhurst elementary. I joined a writing group that kept me accountable. A writing buddy and I would meet every week for pep talks and to work together at the New Deal CafĂ© on NE Halsey St. And there were months when I laid it all down to get some distance or because I was at an emotional block. 

This story depicts a nation’s tragedy, but it also reveals a very personal trauma that begins well before my birth. Exposing my own sorrow revealed a deeper wound that belonged to my mother; and in exploring her pain, I uncovered my grandmother’s devastating grief. This story parallels what is happening in Spain as the Truth Commission seeks to literally excavate mass graves and uncover the atrocities from the Spanish Civil war and the Franco years following his bloody coup. It took me time to untangle the threads of these stories and then weave them into a meaningful whole.

3. What was the process of self-publication?  Why did you choose that route?

I love this question because for me it demonstrates the best of Portland. There had been many attempts to find a publisher, an agent, an introduction into the publishing world; but those attempts always came to nothing. There were also many attempts to abandon the project, leave it in the drawer, start something new. But every few months it would call out to me to try again. Gathering up the gumption to try again, I would edit; revise; rework; polish; write those query letters; enter contests; approach smaller publishing houses who might embrace a manuscript from an “older” unknown with absolutely no social media presence, no platform and no desire to create one …  After a new slate of rejections, I would need another few months to recuperate and rest before gleaning some more gumption and heeding the call to try again. But then the pandemic stopped us all.  

Just over a year ago, the world shut down. We were afraid, and everything was uncertain and scary. Yet somehow, we moved beyond fear and stepped up to do these difficult and amazing things. Portland gathered to stand up for Black Lives. We found creative ways to visit with our loved ones. We put lights in our windows and banged pots and pans in celebration of our frontline health workers. All Saints Episcopal Church met the need of our vulnerable neighbors and started a Food Pantry that the neighborhood not only embraced but supported -- still. We learned to grieve so many losses and find comfort in each other by helping one another. We planted gardens and shared the bounty. We became scrappy and resourceful and generous.

Maybe because life suddenly seemed more fragile than ever before, maybe because a traditional path to fulfilling my dream seemed a dead end, maybe it was a need to immerse and distract myself in an all-consuming project while our skies turned orange with wildfire smoke . . . I don’t know. But I decided to indie-publish. My husband learned the formatting software, together we designed the cover, my (now grown) children read and reread, and I tapped into our beautiful community for help. 

During the early days of the pandemic, the online community “Nextdoor” and Facebook “Buy Nothing” groups stepped up to help neighbors connect for groceries, supplies, masks, everything! Seeing people asking for help and others stepping up to do what they could showed me just how big-hearted Portland is. Though active on these sites, I had never really asked for much. The gifts given are usually tangible items, but I decided to ask for a gift of time: I asked for help translating a difficult to understand video of my uncle in Spain discussing the war. So many members of my neighborhood “Buy Nothing” group offered to help. Then I thought maybe I could find some Beta Readers – folks who don’t know and love me – to read the manuscript and offer their critiques. And again, my “Buy Nothing” group raised their hands to help. I tapped “Nextdoor Woodstock” for two book groups that would be willing to read and have a Zoom discussion (one about the historical aspects and another about the mother/daughter dynamic). A few members of the All Saints Episcopal Church congregation helped me with religious themes. To me, the publication of Inheriting Our Names is truly a celebration of Portland and how we circle around to help each other. I don’t think I could have done this without these communities. While Inheriting Our Names is indie published through Amazon, it is available at your local Portland bookshop and that makes me so happy. 

I’ve published this family memoir using my grandmothers’ names in place of my own (my Spanish abuela Vargas and my Oklahoma granny McPherson) mostly because my family in Spain is still immersed in a country tender with the reckoning of the ongoing and hotly contested truth commission: unearthing the bones buried in mass graves, finding their disappeared, and finally -- at long last -- listening to their dead. In using my abuela’s and granny’s maiden names, I seek to honor the matrilineal legacy from which this project was born and to give my Spanish family the ability to distance themselves if they so choose. 


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