“The Sentence That Heals Us: an Interview with Tomás Q. Morín” by Jonathan Jones

Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Tomás Q. Morín describes his new memoir, Let Me Count the Ways, as a “triptych of fatherhood and manhood.” He writes with tenderness and humor as he recounts relationships with three father figures—his biological father, his chosen father, and his maternal grandfather. In a series of chapters, he explores parental addiction, toxic masculinity, and Morín’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. “In grade school when someone bragged about their father,” Morín writes, “I wanted to say, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, my dad can shoot heroin faster than yours!’” 

Morín has also published two collections of poetry, Machete and A Larger Country, winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman Prize. He has translated many works from the Spanish, including The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. In April, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry. Morín lives in Houston, and is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rice University. 

This interview was conducted via Zoom on May 18, 2022. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

To kick things off, your memoir is so rich and beautiful. I was anxious coming to this interview today, particularly as a writer myself with a family history of poverty and addiction. But here we are! Thankfully. Do you have any questions before we start?

Yeah, I do. What’s the name of that cat over your shoulder? 

Oh! His name is Tigger. He’s been my writing pal the last few weeks. 

I love cats. 

I noted in your memoir that you had a cat named Lindsey, AND how Lindsey found you, sort of chose you as her owner. 

Yeah. I had her for a long time. She passed away a few years back. She was also my writing partner. 

Cats are great writing partners. Jumping into your memoir, I found myself crying and laughing and, in the end, amazed by your work. I feel there’s a conversation between your work and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, in terms of how we sometimes use writing and art to get trauma out of the body. How does it feel to have this book out?  

I have mixed emotions. I shared quite a few of these stories with friends and family over the years. But, as you probably know, memories change as we change, as time goes by and we grow. I am glad to have what I think is a faithful version of these moments and my life on the page, and I hope that this story can help people. I do not know if that’s the right thing to hope for. On the other hand, having this out in the world is a little scary. Before, when it was just part of my oral history, I was in control of who I shared these stories with, person by person, trust by trust, but now that the book is out, my work makes connections with people I will never meet. 

What kind of audience are you trying to reach? It sounds like you are writing for readers who might see themselves in the book and relate.

I hope so. Kiese’s Heavy is a book that means a lot to me. His book, for sure, gave me permission to make space in this book and in my work for how people sounded in my neighborhood, to recreate the cadence of that beautiful speech and show its value. 

You lovingly capture your hometown in South Texas and the people there. Let’s talk about the title, Let Me Count The Ways, which is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “How Do I Love Thee? How does this poem intertwine with the topics you cover from OCD to parental addiction to toxic masculinity? 

One of the reasons I landed on the poem is what it communicates. We have this romanticized idea that love is boundless. Love being boundless means suffering is boundless too. Love and suffering are braided and are not on opposite ends of the spectrum. Also, tying the poem to OCD, counting is an important mechanism for me with my anxiety. As I write in the first chapter, I count everything and have done so ever since I was young. The title hit so many different notes. It would put the reader in mind of the poem, and they would start reading the book from a place of love versus fear or judgment or excitement. There are so many opening notes one could hit, if you think of the way a concert works. That first note is important. This is definitely a book with so much pain that I want to start with the idea of love. I felt that this poem would set that tone and cement the idea that the book is, in a way, a reckoning. The book is a reckoning with the past, with the boundlessness of love and with the failure of love and everything that goes with that. 

Speaking of love, let’s turn to a particular chapter from the book called “Childhood Faith,” which explores your relationship with Jackie, who was like a father to you. You write, “I guess Jackie’s lesson was that not all men will break my heart and sell the pieces. And even when they do, as Jackie would years down the road, it could be gentle and loving.” Tell me more about who Jackie was to you. 

As a relatively new father myself, I have come to learn the importance of spending time with children, even if it’s unstructured time. With my biological father, I didn’t really have a whole lot of that. I was always on the side of whatever mission or hustle he was on, which was in the service of his heroin addiction. With Jackie, there were days where we would spend hours together playing chess or playing basketball, just talking, making a run to the grocery store. All of that time, day after day, week after week, it accumulates and your connection with that person grows exponentially. The thing that made it so impactful for me was that he wasn’t doing it out of obligation because he was my biological father, or because he wanted something. He just wanted to enjoy my company. He loved me. It sounds so simple to say it: You spend time with the person you love. It makes them happy and makes you happy, and that’s why you do it. But looking back on it, it feels like a small miracle. It feels like a blessing. The timing was important too. My parents were splitting up. Jackie was splitting up with his wife, not able to see his son. He lived across the street. Our families had been friends. We were each seeking someone like the other. 

It’s notable that Jackie also struggled with addiction. Being a poet, you have this poem in the chapter “Childhood Faith” that goes through the list of charges the world leveled against Jackie, from possession of crack to grand theft auto, how the world rendered a guilty verdict on him. But he meant so much to you. He was like a dad. 

One thing that I hope comes across to readers is Jackie was a good parent. There’s this idea that fathers have to be perfect in order to be good parents. I know so many people who are parents who have never gotten so much as a speeding ticket and who do everything aboveboard—and who are not there for their kids. They may even be living in the same house, but like my father, they are statues at home, not emotionally accessible, not physically accessible. There’s what you do, and then there’s who you are. That’s one thing I learned from the example of Jackie’s life. Someone just looking at that list of charges the world leveled against Jackie would say, “What a horrible human being. What a horrible person. Not the kind of person I would want my kid around.” And yet he gave me so much, as though he were my parent. We would be hard-pressed to find someone who would say that a parent struggling with the disease of cancer or multiple sclerosis is a bad parent. We would never automatically assume they are not a good parent or are scumbags because they have such diseases. But if it’s the disease of alcoholism or drug addiction, we immediately slide into judgment and dismissal. That’s the country we live in, the culture we live in. It’s sad and it’s unnecessary, and kids pick up on all of that. The response is so dramatically different if your parent is addicted to heroin versus your parent having cancer. One would make you radioactive and, in the other case, the parents of friends and classmates would ask if they could start a meal train for you. But if your parent is a drug addict, you’re often an outcast. 

Staying on the chapter “Childhood Faith,” you close that chapter with the scene of you visiting Jackie in prison and finding your biological father in the same prison. That, of course, was coincidental. How did you come to that scene? Did you always know you wanted to go there? 

The scene you ask about is one that jumped around to different places in the book. But when I was putting this particular chapter together, that scene seemed to be the perfect place to end because it introduces this moment of absurdity. I go to the county jail to see one father and discover that the other one is there. It’s also the only moment in the book where they are in the same place. You can see how different the conversations are, how my bearing and body language change as I am talking to my biological father versus when I am talking to Jackie. And Jackie is the one I leave with because he is the one I came for. I felt like this was the right note to cap off that chapter. 

The other character I want to talk about is your maternal grandfather. In the chapter “Quiet Need,” the grandfather shares a fable about a character called Coyote who tries to make an atomic bomb but actually makes a shit bomb that rains down shit on everyone. In your grandfather’s story, the atomic bomb becomes “a tonic bomb” to cure inequality. Tell me more about what personal or family stories mean to you. 

As I age, I notice my memories shifting, not necessarily in a bad way. But I’ve been afraid of losing the voices of people like Jackie. I was afraid his voice would change as I changed, and I would lose him again. So, initially, I started with a book that would capture his presence and his voice so I could always have it. Then it morphed. I felt if I wrote about him, I had to preserve the voice of my biological father, who’s also gone. And, if I wrote about my dad, I had to capture the voice of my grandfather. With Jackie, my dad, and my grandfather, I was able to have this triptych of manhood and fatherhood.

I want to ask about storytelling and trauma. Storytelling can make us relive traumatic things, which is why I appreciate your grandfather’s fable of Coyote. It’s so powerful and funny. What was your strategy for coping with the trauma we often re-experience when writing a traumatic memory? 

That first draft of the book really benefited by my living alone with my cat, who we discussed at the beginning of our conversation. I do not know whether I could have written this book now, as a father and a partner. There were a few moments in the first draft of that book where I am typing and the tears are just flowing. I was weeping about something I thought I had dealt with but putting it into language on the page made me realize that I had not processed it, or was back in that moment re-experiencing it. When writing this book, I was worried about which sections I could read aloud at events. I did not want to be crying or a mess on stage. I came to realize that there are funny parts that I could read, and I wanted people to remember the funny parts, like the story about Coyote from my grandfather. Circling back to Kiese Laymon, he started this discussion on how we protect ourselves when we write memoir and personal work. Particularly, with regard to writers that are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color.   It’s an important conversation that we are not having enough. It needs to be a conversation with readers, with those like us and not like us. I want to have this conversation with other writers of color who are launching projects. It is so important not to destroy yourself, to make the thing in a way that is safe for you, and in a way that you can be vulnerable. 

On that note, I have a question about tears. We’ve briefly discussed the maternal grandfather character. He is portrayed with such tenderness, but he also tells the younger Tomás not to cry. For those of us born as or gendered as male, how do we learn to cry when we have been taught not to cry? 

That’s such an important question. I think it has to start with interrogating what about crying, if you’re a boy or a man, is seen as dangerous to the person who is telling you not to. My gut instinct is that advice is coming from a place of fear. What would it mean if people saw you crying? Also, within a historical context, my grandfather was born in 1906. A man crying in 1920 is different than a man crying in 2020. What my grandfather was trying to pass on was a tool for survival. I feel that tool might have been something useful for him growing up in South Texas in the early part of the last century. It’s not useful to me where I am now in this other century. It’s not like it’s a tool for thriving. It’s a tool for enduring. 

The last question I have is about the final chapter, “Genesis,” where you revisit the grandfather’s story of Coyote and how Coyote is trying to make a candle out of tears which turns into the moon. How do we turn tears into light? 

I love that question. I had so much fun writing that chapter. When my agent read the book, he asked if I wrote this or whether it was folklore. The answer is that I wrote it. It was one of the things I enjoyed most, expanding on my grandfather’s Coyote story and, in a way, having a conversation with him. It’s a way to converse with him about the importance of tears. If we think about all of the physical reactions our bodies have when we cry, the release of holding these things in that shouldn’t be held in. My last chapter speaks to my grandfather in a way that he would understand. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t write. Spanish was his only language. He signed his name with an X. But if he were alive to hear this story, he would love it. He would understand what I am trying to say.

I have loved talking with you. It’s been great to hear you discuss your work and what you want your work to do.

Likewise. Thank you for the conversation. Everything I do, every publicity thing that I do, I hope increases the chances that someone who needs the book will find it. This brings to mind this quote I found the other day by Philip K. Dick from his novel Valis: “There exists for everyone a sentence, a series of words that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you are lucky, you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.” The more we read, the greater the chance that we will find the sentence that heals us.

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Jonathan Winston Jones is a queer social scientist and writer living in Chicago. Jones recently published an essay called “Penned” in The Sun.