Author and University of Oregon professor Melissa Hart shares her story as a young girl learning of her parents’ divorce in Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. Although she wants to live with her mother in her new bohemian neighborhood of Oxnard, Calif., she and her two siblings must live with their father in a boring, middle-class neighborhood.
Hart’s father is granted primary custody mainly because her mother is a lesbian. Experiences and consequences of these decisions are learned as Hart is pulled in separate directions by her parents.
Hart has been a freelancer for the past 20 years, and has taught journalism for five years at University of Oregon. She teaches classes such as memoir writing, feature writing, research methods and interviewing.
Hart began freelancing at an early age for two local newspapers and has also written freelance essays, articles, and book reviews for various publications. Recently, she’s written pieces for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The author’s first memoir, The Assault of Laughter, which was published in 2005, begins her story and discusses her life being raised with divorced parents, one of whom went on to have a relationship with someone of the same sex.
Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood dives deeper into the social transition that was happening at the time.
“I knew I wanted to explore more eloquently and more in depth the fact that so many mothers who came out as lesbians in the 1970s and early 1980s routinely lost custody of their children,” Hart said.
As in Hart’s situation, her father was granted primary custody of her and her two siblings, which only allowed them to visit her mother for two weekends a month.
Her parents’ divorce changed the family’s situation. What was once guarded by the high status of her father—who lived in a “quiet, middle-class neighborhood”—was lost and she became exposed to a whole new world.
In Gringa, she recounts this experience.
“A lot of the book is me making fun of my own ignorance. I couldn’t see at the time that the culture offered to me by my mother and her family was actually vivid and unusual and exciting,” Hart said.
Gringa not only tells her own story, but also the story of the fascinating world she became a part of. In her book, she addresses the issues of “gender, race, class and culture” that became part of her life in “multicultural Los Angeles,” Hart explained.
She even talks about how she was seen as the minority in her new environment.
“Anglo students were the minority in my high school, and my friends of other races jokingly referred to me as ‘gringa,’ ‘Casper,’ and just plain ‘white girl’,” Hart said.
Hart seems to be thankful for the opportunities during her upbringing, now more than she may have realized in her younger years.
“I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by people from various cultures, and classes, and with members of the LGBT community,” Hart said. “In addition, my brother has Down syndrome, and so I spent a great deal of time with him, and later, worked as a counselor for adults with developmental and physical disabilities.”
Her experiences have certainly changed the way she looks at herself and individuals for the better.
“This exposure to so many different types of people allowed me to consider a variety of perspectives with enthusiasm and respect,” Hart said.