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Americano Returns: Author Interview with Dominic Carrillo

Dominic Carrillo has created a new holiday tradition: Fly home to San Diego, spend time with family and friends, host a book signing for a recent publication at a local trendy hot spot, and return to his adventurous life abroad.

Since the debut of his first book last year, To Be Frank Diego, a novel which follows the struggle of a racially mixed main character as he navigates growing up just north of the Mexican border, Dominic has been eager to compile his more autobiographical pieces into a second offering.

This year, Americano Abroad is the result: a compilation of essays lifted from his popular travel blog of the same name. The San Diego book signing will be held at the evening before Dominic returns to teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Deciding what to include in the collection was no easy feat. Publication of some of his pieces in the San Diego Reader helped make the decisions as well as an expat writing group in Sofia. Separated into three sections, the book begins with an exploration of Italy, Dominic’s first experience living abroad, The writing then moves through Nigeria, his first official teaching stint, and into Bulgaria, where he now resides.

Although he describes the book as “memoir,” Dominic is quick to point out that it is no Eat, Pray, Love. In addition to reflections on his local surroundings, the book is also interspersed with homecomings and analysis of American culture. In fact, as much as the essays seem to be an exploration of Dominic’s travels, his writing spends an equal amount of time unpacking what it is to be an “American,” as the title of his book suggests.

“At a certain point in defining what it is to be American, it’s necessary to be outside of America to reflect on that and figure out what that means,” says Dominic, continuing his navigation of themes of identity which began with Frank Diego. “If I think about myself as Mexican-American. But then I’m in Bulgaria, and to locals, I look Turkish or Greek. And then in Nigeria, I might say to others that I’m half Mexican, but to them, I’m white. To be in these three different places and then trying to position my identity in those places, it’s kind of a weird twist.”

In addition to the geographical location, what also shifts in Dominic’s book is the tone.  While Italy is full of humor and expectation, Nigeria’s tales settle into ominous simplification, as he takes in his surroundings moment by moment. The narration shifts from the gentle self-deprecation of first person to the stark immediacy of second:

The loud buzz of the generator engine dies. The lights go out. Now it is only you and the insects— most of which are outside— producing a harmonious chorus of humming and chirping. The live creatures inside your room have already been accepted as a fact of life and simply categorized into “good” or “bad.” The gecko eats other insects, so he’s welcome. The cricket is harmless. But spiders here are large and potentially poisonous, and scorpions are not uncommon, so you kill them if you can, before the lights go out. (“Reading at Night in Nigeria”)

“In Italy, I tried to turn my complaints into humor and joke about it,” Dominic says. “In Nigeria, the switch was that I realized I didn’t have the right to complain about anything. There’s such poverty and every reason for people there to be hopeless and pissed. And people were awesome. They were genuine and happy and welcoming.” The awe in his voice is unmistakable, even though it’s been many months since his stint with the boarding school there.

From there, everything changes. The writing from Bulgaria is infused with appreciation, as if the practice of moment-to-moment living Dominic gleaned in Nigeria has never really left him. Even Dominic has noticed the difference in his own “Americano” analysis of his foreign surroundings.

“It’s a different kind of reality check,” he says, commenting on how his teaching colleagues stationed in other countries would ask about Bulgaria with a smirk, as if this situation was somehow less glamorous. “Everything after [Nigeria]… I just felt thankful and grateful for everything I have.” Dominic has just re-upped for a second year of his English teaching position in Sofia.

Those feelings of gratitude also extend to his local fan base. Sharing his new book with family and friends in San Diego is becoming part of the publication process, and he continually finds the support overwhelming. The reactions of these readers who have followed his blog since its inception have had a huge impact on his voice, Dominic says.

“In the beginning, it was trial and error,” he says, explaining that his first pass at travel blog writing resulted in guided tour analyses, containing very little personal commentary and very little humor. Three blog entries later, with a little exposure to David Sedaris and some positive feedback on the more sarcastic portions of his pieces, Dominic wrote what would become the first chapter of the book – a humorous commentary on teaching English in Italy and feeling like a fraud. This entry caught the attention of his eighth grade English teacher in San Diego.

“I posted that and Jeanine Bennett wrote back to me and said that she woke up at 6 am to go to school and read that and was cracking up. And of course, I almost started crying. In Italy, I was like, ‘Oh my god, are you kidding me?’ I got a few more comments like that from that story and I thought, this is the voice, this is where I should be writing from.”

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